Why does Trinidad & Tobago tax books?

Feature image via Canva Pro.

By Dr. Gabrielle Hosein

This article, originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, is republished below with permission.

From April 28-30, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest — arguable the Caribbean's premier literary festival — gathered more than 100 novelists, short-story writers, biographers and poets to exuberantly celebrate books.

There was a glittering wealth of writing from the Caribbean. In-person or online, one could hear readings from recent publications, and backstories from this generation of award-winning Caribbean authors as they are ascending a global stage. The connection to both writers and their work felt wonderfully intimate and familiar, so typical of us in these small islands.

While the One Caribbean Media (OCM) award, symbolising the most commended book of the festival, went to Ayana Lloyd Banwo for her outstanding novel, “When We Were Birds,” the poetry prize went to Anthony Joseph for his recent collection, “Sonnets for Albert,” which captures his memories of his father in snapshots of vivid verse, and the non-fiction prize was awarded to Ira Mathur’s epic transnational autobiography, “Love the Dark Days.”

Circling the national library’s atrium in-between sessions, I pressed close to booksellers’ tables like a candy store window, trying to decide which books to buy. Such choices were a question of space; I’ve no more empty bookshelves even after agonizingly whittling down by about seven boxes to mostly Caribbean literature. However, deciding on the hard sweet or the soft toffee was also a matter of money. I was like a child clenching precious pennies.

Books are expensive.

Perhaps if they were more affordable, more men would buy them instead of guns, carrying smaller ones rolled in their back pocket to read instead of killing time rolling weed. Perhaps if Caribbean books were more accessible, we might see each other’s outward violence and inner confusions more compassionately, finding characters in novels or descriptions in poems that enable us to recognise and forgive even ourselves.

Booksellers may make sales, but their trade is a labour of love, hardly making the profit they should, perhaps explaining why we have more rum shops than bookshops — places to drown loneliness and sorrows rather than be steadied by the humanity of shared desires and fears.

Contributing to this situation is a senseless tax on books imposed by the present government in February 2016. Educational materials such as school texts and exercise books are exempt. However, the cost of literature, even locally produced, was increased.

At the time, the finance minister described the tax regime as fiscal policy, not social policy, but that’s merely a mirage. All taxation reflects an assessment of social needs and priorities, as well as principles of who should contribute and how.

For example, VAT [Value Added Tax] applies equally to all consumers, whether rich or poor, and is therefore inequitable. In contrast, property and income tax should raise greater revenue from the wealthy, and be graduated rather than flat, meaning the rich should be taxed at higher rates than the poor, always.

At the time, booksellers protested. Professor Bridget Brereton described the decision to tax literature as strange, surprising and disappointing. She wrote, “VAT will be applied to all ‘literary books’ – this means novels of all kinds, modern and classics; volumes of short stories, plays and poetry; non-fiction books (biographies and autobiographies, works on social and natural sciences and his­tory, books about art and music).

Recently, a sort of literary renaissance has taken place in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Carib­bean, with more local or regional authors publishing novels, short stories and poetry, and winning big awards, too, as well as interesting non-fiction books of all kinds. Do we want to reduce their market by ma­king their books more costly?”

Richie Sookhai, then president of the Chaguanas Chamber of Industry and Commerce, rightly observed, “This cannot be the way forward in a society where low levels of literacy can be cited as contributing factors in crime, poverty and social mobility.

“One of the ways we encourage pride in country is by reading about our history, about those who went before us and the great literature produced by our own writers like the Naipauls, Selvon, Lovelace. When we put that out of the reach of our children and the wider population, we do our country no service.”

And so it continues today. Caribbean literature, blooming in our midst, can transform our reality. Yet, as long as they are taxed as a luxury, people are least likely to choose books with their precious pennies.

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