Revaluing Caribbean literature

One of the many pleasures of the third annual NGC Bocas Litfest recently concluded in Port of Spain was the thrill of watching large audiences sitting rapt for an hour while regional writers and intellectuals discussed their literary influences, the idea of national literatures and the achievements and challenges of postcolonial historiography. The festival’s collaboration with the Edinburgh World Writers Conference repeatedly showed, in the words of the Litfest founder, Marina Salandy-Brown, “that while the questions of 50 years ago remain relevant, the focus has changed.” Collectively the conversations left a strong impression that Caribbean literature – for decades a phenomenon that was largely the benign export of foreign publishers – is renewing energies and regaining momentum that seemed to have been lost with the political disappointments that accompanied the failure of West Indian federation.

From its inception the Litfest has scrupulously acknowledged the work of cultural figures ‒ such as the late A J Seymour ‒ whose patient labours with manuscripts, radio broadcasts and theatre production have often been overlooked or forgotten. This year the inaugural Bocas Henry Swanzy award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Literature was given to Sarah White and the late John La Rose, co-founders of the pioneering publisher New Beacon Books, an institution that helped an entire generation of West Indian writing to find its voice when few others paid it any serious attention. Henry Swanzy himself, the Irish producer of the BBC’s weekly ‘Caribbean Voices’ programme played a similarly vital role for West Indian writers in the forties and fifties.

Another distinguishing feature of the festival has been its comprehensive approach to both the creative and workaday challenges of book production. Not only does it host workshops to teach the craft of writing, it holds open mic sessions for fledgling authors and even a month-long children’s book festival. This forward-looking approach is admirable and entirely consistent with literacy programmes in fully developed countries where the need to instil a culture of reading at an early age has become a priority.

Nowhere was the importance of speaking to the next generation more evident than when dozens of schoolchildren squeezed into the Old Fire Station next to the National Library to listen to the Toronto-based Jamaican author Olive Senior. Among many quotable pieces of advice, Senior told the audience: “Writers throughout the ages have found ways to talk about issues like politics without seeming to talk about them. The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask, ‘What is it about?’ It asks. ‘How do we tell it to make it real?’”  After such inspiring advice, who wouldn’t want to become a writer?

Prizes are important in any literary culture. The One Caribbean Media Bocas Prizes this year included Rupert Roopnaraine’s The Sky’s Wild Noise, a choice that will finally afford some welcome exposure to the work of our finest cultural critic. It is worth noting that this sort of book would not have been produced before the rise of the West-Indian focused publishing houses like Peepal Tree Press (founded in 1985). The acknowledgement and discussion of Guyanese writers and artists as part of a West Indian canon, as evident this year as it has been in previous festivals, also showed that the Litfest organizers are entirely serious about organizing a celebration of regional literature and have gone to great lengths to keep their focus as wide as possible.

The NGC Bocas Litfest has been helped by generous corporate funding but the hard behind-the-scenes work necessary to run such a complex event so smoothly, and the intellectual seriousness that has informed the programming throughout are proof, were any needed, that this generation too has its versions of Henry Swanzy, John La Rose, Frank Collymore and A J Seymour. Their remarkable success in staging three compelling literary and cultural festivals in as many years suggests that the future of Caribbean writing and publishing is more promising today than it has been for decades.

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