Bocas Literary Festival Showcases Caribbean Literature

The NGC Bocas Literary Festival, which was hosted in Trinidad and Tobago from Wednesday April 23 to Sunday, April 27, 2014, attracted writers and readers alike to the event's many workshops and award presentations. Robert Antoni won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for his novel “As Flies To Whatless Boys”, Kei Miller copped the non-fiction prize for his essay collection “Writing Down The Vision: Essays and Prophesies”, while Lorna Goodison took home the poetry prize for her collection “Oracabessa”.  Bocas attracted a lot of attention on social media, spurred on in part by the active new media presence of the festival itself.

Robert Antoni, Winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, reading from his novel. Photo by Marlon James, used with permission.

Robert Antoni, Winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, reading from his novel. Photo by Marlon James, used with permission.

Kwame Slusher followed the entire programme online from his home in Barbados and was inspired to write about the gap between Caribbean writers and readers

When Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace was asked in an interview whether he asked readers what they wanted, Lovelace said that he was a reader too and did not think of readers as external to himself. So the trick is for his ‘writing self’ not to ‘shortchange’ his ‘reading self’. However he had to admit that Caribbean literature needs more readers.

One of the problems I had as a young reader, is that I read to escape. I would bury myself deep in whimsical passages of magical universities, parallel worlds and distant planets. I read anything that didn’t remind me of anything familiar. What I knew about Caribbean literature then, which was very little, was that it was uncomfortably real. So a lot of the authors that I read were American or British. It took me years to learn to appreciate Caribbean literature.

I remember being a teenager in Maryland, and my Dad was so concerned that I was losing touch with my ‘Caribbean Identity’ that he forced encouraged me, enthusiastically, to readNo Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo. It was a story about the struggles of a poor Indo-Trinidadian rice-growing family.

It is the most depressing book I have ever read.

To get back to Poynting’s point about the disconnect between Caribbean writers and Caribbean readers, there obviously needs to be some kind of dialogue between both parties. This is probably why literary festivals like Bocas Lit Fest, BIM Lit Fest and Calabash International Literary Festival, to be held in Jamaica from May 30th to June 1st, are so important. Literary Festivals bring together authors and readers and hopefully both can connect with one another.

Diane Brown, a writer and editor from Jamaica, wrote about the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, which is targeted at writing for young adults:

Obviously the big news for children’s writers is the result of the inaugural Burt Award for Young Adult literature in the Caribbean, announced at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago. The winner of the first prize is A-dZiko Simba  Gegele (Jamaica),  for her book All Over Again, published by the young publisher, Tanya Batson-Savage of Blue Moon Publishing/Blouse and Skirt Books.  As I have said in previous posts, I love A-dZiko’s style. It is wonderfully lyrical. She is also a storyteller and a poet, so that she actually seems to perform her stories.  Congratulations to both A-dZiko  and Tanya. 

A cross-section of the crowd at one of the Bocas LitFest 2014 readings. Photo by Marlon James, used with permission.

A cross-section of the crowd at one of the Bocas LitFest 2014 readings. Photo by Marlon James, used with permission.

Antiguan writer, Joanne C. Hillhouse, who was the runner-up for the Burt Award, wrote about her truncated, hectic Bocas experience:

I didn’t get to stay for much else at my first Bocas (of which my biggest regret is probably the Lovelace film A Writer in His Place, which ran concurrent with my panel), as I was scheduled to leave the following morning ahead of the PEN World Voices Festival. I had run ins with old mentors Carolyn Cooper and Mervyn Morris, and drive bys with a few other new and familiar faces, like Earl Lovelace and Velma Pollard, whom I met for the first time last year in Guadeloupe, Bernadine Evaristo who I met in Antigua while she was still researching her now acclaimed book Mr. Loverman, Kei Miller who had just fed me in Scotland and had since been as far as Iraq, and yet here he was reading from his much anticipated forthcoming poetry collection and signing my copy of his Writing Down the Vision, non fiction winner of the Bocas prize (I’d heard him read from it at Aye Write! and had to have it). Plus there were the new people that I met and hopefully will remember the next time we meet again.

Kei Miller, reading from his work "Writing Down the Vision". Photo my Marlon James, used with permission.

Kei Miller, reading from his work “Writing Down the Vision”. Photo my Marlon James, used with permission.

Hillhouse also reflected on her journey, not only from Trinidad to New York but over the course of her writing career:

In the end, I felt somewhat melancholy as I taxied to the airport at that time of early morning when there’s not much else on the road and not much else to think about but the journey you’re on, the one you’re taking literally and the bigger journey, of life, of which it is a part. I felt strangely peaceful, peaceful, and thankful (my Burt trophy heavy in my Bocas bag, the first award of its kind for this bookworm-cum-writer from Ottos, Antigua who’s been paying and paying her dues). So yeah, thankful for this moment – I don’t suck. I am sleepy though. That’s the thing all of this journeying will do to you, totally tilt you off kilter, time wise. But it’s a small thing really, when you consider the reward, and I’m not just talking about the trophy, and all it represents, I’m talking about the nerves and the awkwardness and the connections and the poetry and the stories and the engagements and the travels and the conversations and the new places and faces, and the familiar places and faces, all of that and so many other memories to keep.

An event featuring former juvenile delinquents and their English teacher brought Akosua Edwards to tears

I spent some time on Saturday at the NGC Bocas Literary Festival in Port of Spain Trinidad. The festival brings together literary works from all over the Caribbean and the diaspora with a number of world renowned writers and poets. What struck me at this event was the honest and open stories of a few young men who were incarcerated from the age of 15 for an average of ten years at the Youth Training Centre (YTC). They along with their English teacher, a woman who volunteered to teach them English Literature whilst at the institution, decided to tell their story in this open, honest and wonderful piece of work called Wishing for Wings. I found myself literally weeping listening to their story! And there and then I vowed to do something! We have young people from the age of 11 being incarcerated and locked inside for 23 hours a day, we have a rehabilitation system that instead of rehabilitating it creates more prisoners and resentment! And the thing that made me weep more is that it is so easy to play a part in making where I live a better place! I want to thank those young men for being open and honest, for deciding that they want to live a different life. That was the other thing that I learnt from them, it all starts with a decision! There is nothing more powerful than a made up mind. No wavering, no doubt, just a firm decision and things fall into place after that, not without its challenges but that power overrides them!

Jamaica-based blogger Annie Paul who attended the festival, collated a series of tweets related to Bocas:

Other attendees also took to Twitter to talk about their experience:

The images used in this post are by Marlon James, used with permission from the NGC Bocas LitFest.


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