Bocas Lit Fest crowdsources ‘100 Caribbean books that made us’

Screenshot of Bocas Lit Fest's Facebook post promoting its “100 Caribbean Books that Made Us” initiative.

The Bocas Lit Fest, which has emerged not only as the premier Caribbean literary festival but as one of the best in the world, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The founders of the Trinidad and Tobago-based festival had planned to mark the occasion in grand style from September 18-20, 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic has, thus far, forced all events in the lead-up to the festival online — and it remains unclear at this point whether the country's borders will be reopened in time for the carded festival dates.

One of the initiatives the festival has taken to keep its audience engaged is its “100 Caribbean books that made us” campaign. Inspired by the BBC’s “100 books that shaped our world,” the challenge asks readers to submit the titles of the Caribbean books that have meant the most to them. Bocas makes clear that this “isn’t a competition, but a chance to curate the stories that hold pride of place on your bookshelves and in your hearts.”

The campaign, which ended on May 8, 2020, received a robust response on social media channels, via the hashtag #MyCaribbeanLibrary. Some literature fans simply posted their picks in comment threads, while others created their own posts and videos. We'll feature some of the most interesting choices.

Trinidadian book vlogger Saajid Hosein kicked things off by explaining how the initiative worked and selecting a few picks of his own:

Many of the books Hosein chose had the shared theme of the inner creating the outer, including Elizabeth Nunez’ “Anna In Between,” in which the heroine learns that “home is not a place, but rather, the people that you love and care for,” and Kevin Jared Hosein's “The Beast of Kukuyo,” a tale about a girl who learns that the true monsters that plague our fears […] are, in fact, the ones that live within us.”

Poet and blogger Amilcar Sanatan also posted a video with his choices:

Sanatan's list was an eclectic one. It included Caribbean literary classics like Earl Lovelace's “The Dragon Can't Dance,” Austin Clarke's “Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack,” which looks at “the coloniality of education and Barbadian social life,” and Jamaican Lorna Goodison's poetry collection, “I Am Becoming My Mother,” which Sanatan says helped shape him.

He also deemed Jamaica Kincaid's “A Small Place” a “very important piece of work” as “a contestation of space, place [and] power” in the region. As a spoken word poet, Sanatan was also drawn to “The History of the Voice,” by Kamau Brathwaite, who believed that poetry, just like Caribbean culture, must be experienced through the region's rich oral tradition.

Author Breanne Mc Ivor also weighed in, with picks that included Caribbean crime fiction in the form of Jacob Ross’ “The Bone Readers”, and Edwidge Danticat's acclaimed novel, “The Dew Breaker”:

Mc Ivor also chose Trinidadian poet Shivanee Ramlochan's startling debut, “Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting,” which she calls “poetry that shows us the best and worst of ourselves.”

Another Trinidadian poet, Andre Bagoo, chose Trinidadian writer Lawrence Scott's “Aelred’s Sin‬” as a book that had a profound impact:

Look closely, it is as though Lawrence Scott has ripped out the spine of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” the yearning root, the bones beneath tender flesh and transplanted the same mood and energy, the same series of baffling yet dazzling antinomies into the heat of the islands— in all senses, across geographies. A book that is bold in its willingness to explore a hidden struggle which, even in all its particulars, manages to be universal. An incredible feat not only of art, but also, in its own way, restitution, justice and song. Bless you, Lawrence Scott.

Finally, Anna Lucie-Smith's suggestions stayed firmly in the realm of children's and young adult literature, in order to help mould the Caribbean readers — and writers — of tomorrow:

The Bocas Lit Fest is asking us to name the 100 [Caribbean] books that made us. Well, I think we might well make it to 1,000! […] Yes, there are the obvious classics and I won't rehash any of that. But there are a few very recent books that I want to see on the list.

Her picks included Lisa Allen-Agostini's “Home Home,” which she calls “a simple, readable, and oh so important little book that touches on so many serious things that we as Caribbean people bury, ignore or make jokes about without ever fully understanding.”

Lucie-Smith also liked “My Fishy Stepmom,” by Shakirah M. Bourne because of its “powerful messages for youth, plus the language plays with Caribbean folklore in a lighter way,” and Jeunanne Alkins’ “Ready, Set…Hatch!” — a picture book that educates children about leatherback turtles through a charming story about a competitive little hatchling who learns a valuable lesson about teamwork.

Lucie-Smith ends by saying:

Bocas Lit Fest forgive me for only mentioning YA [young adult] and children's lit — but it's our foundation! Long before my children read lovelace and naipaul, we will be enjoying Alkins, Bourne and Allen-Agostini as a family!

The first 20 books selected by Bocas Lit Fest are here and include “multiple genres […] spanning generations, styles, settings, and concerns. Some of the themes explored in these fiction, nonfiction and poetry titles include class division, xenophobia, young love, rural development, exile, colourism — amid so many more.”

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