The Bocas Lit Fest 2011

A report on Trinidad’s inaugural Bocas Lit Fest 2011, a literary festival. with photos.

I have so much work to do, so many deadlines to stop ignoring, but i know i won’t be able to do a thing unless i spit this post out of my craw.

Caribbean Writing panel at Bocas Lit Fest. l to r: Nicholas Laughlin, BC Pires, Mark McWatt, Jane King, Marlon James and Tanya Shirley

Bocas was a blast. I am SO glad I went to the first edition of this literary festival in Trinidad which promises to be an annual ritual. I mean I couldn’t not go really, after all one of the organizers was longtime friend and fellow reader and reviewer Nicholas Laughlin of the Caribbean Review of Books. And Trinidad is a place i like to visit as often as I can, awash as it is with good friends, doubles, rum and roti…

Nicholas Laughlin, Marlon James, Tiphanie Yanique

I think what impressed me most about Bocas was the huge amount of corporate support it recieved and the media coverage. On its opening day, April 24th, 2011, the Trinidad Express even devoted an editorial to it titled, “Bocas connects T&T to literary world”:

This country has nurtured some of the finest writers in a region whose literature is celebrated all over the world. Not only the Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Vidia Naipaul, but also CLR James, Eric Williams, Earl Lovelace, Sam Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, Ian McDonald and Michael Anthony are among the pantheon of those whose works are considered Caribbean classics. Yet until now, Trinidad and Tobago has not marked that aspect of its heritage in any organised way. Literary festivals take place throughout the Caribbean, but it is only this year that the country with one of the richest literary traditions in the region will celebrate that part of its culture.

The inaugural Bocas Lit Fest is an idea whose time has come. Named after the straits that connect Trinidad to the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the world, the festival, which takes place in Port of Spain from next week, will bring together writers and readers in over 50 events.

The festival aims, among other things, to celebrate the Caribbean’s literary achievements and to enhance this country’s presence on the world stage, as well as to encourage reading and literacy and to support the local publishing industry.

Writers and other participants will fly in from all over the world to watch, listen to and take part in readings, workshops, performances, panel discussions and film screenings. As word of the festival spreads, it has the potential, in the medium to long term, to become an attraction for the purpose of event tourism.

In its 43 years, the Trinidad Express too has played its part in supporting local writing and writers. In the past decade, this newspaper has serialised the publication of works by Anthony and Lovelace. At one time, indeed, Earl Lovelace was also a reporter in the Express newsroom, while he was already a prize-winning novelist. He covered the news alongside the late Keith Smith, Express editor at large, whose writing will be memorialised during the Bocas Lit Fest.

So as consulting editor Lennox Grant said at Tuesday’s launch of the festival, “The Express, then, as the One Caribbean Media flagship, can claim that we make good company for writers and for writing that bids to be remembered and cherished beyond the fleeting impact of the daily headlines.”

One Caribbean Media, parent company of the Trinidad Express, will demonstrate its commitment to excellence in writing in a concrete way, through its sponsorship of the OCM Bocas Prize, which is open to Caribbean writers and which comes with an award of US$10,000.

OCM offers its congratulations and best wishes to the organisers and sponsors — Republic Bank, KFC, National Gas Company and the National Library — and is delighted and proud to be associated with this historic event, the inaugural Bocas Lit Fest.

In fact the programme listed 20-22 sponsors on its back page. Clearly the Trinidadian media, their private sector and their government were quick to cotton on to the great potential of a festival such as this, something that can’t be said for Jamaica where the extraordinarily successful Calabash Literary Festival has just come to a premature end after a golden run of 10 years.

Bocas couldn’t have been more different from Calabash. Firstly it took place at the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, far from any quaint beach resort. The Trinis have invested big time in this Library which is a high-tech edifice of glass, steel and concrete across from Red House (that houses Parliament). Bang in the middle of the downtown area it was easy to slip out for a bite to eat or a spot of shopping.

National Library of Trinidad and Tobago

Another thing i liked about Bocas was the mix of events in the programme. Readings were only one part of the Festival which included workshops with the invited authors, panel discussions such as the one on Caribbean writing pictured at the top of this post, “Does “Caribbean literature” really exist?” The moderator BC Pires limited the discussion by framing it too narrowly I thought, invoking the ghost of Wayne Brown, who hovered absently over the whole festival (not surprising since he died less than a year ago and was a Trinidadian writer of some prominence). Everyone knew what English Literature, Indian Literature, German Literature and American Literature are said Pires, so why the angst about whether Caribbean Literature exists or not? But of course none of the literary canons he invoked are as clear cut and well-defined as Pires was making them out to be…English literature is now written in India some say, and Indian Literature is a vexed terrain with some not wanting to admit Indians writing in English to the canon and others defining it exclusively by them as Salman Rushdie did in The Vintage Book of Indian Writing celebrating India’s 50th Independence anniversary more than a decade ago.

Kim Johnson on music and ways of listening

Another regular feature on the Bocas Lit Fest every year is going to be The Bocas Debate which this year was on Press vs. Government, the Freedom to Print What? with Judy Raymond, Selwyn Ryan, Mervyn Assam and Amery Browne. The latter two being politicians, predictably thought that if anything, TnT enjoys too much press freedom (!), while Judy and Selwyn both journalists/columnists scoffed at the very idea.

Nicholas Laughlin, Marlon James, Tiphanie Yanique

The real gamechanger Bocas has initiated is the annual OCM Bocas Prize open to poets, fiction and non-fiction writers who have published a book. Offering US$10,000 as the prize The Bocas is a serious literary award which will make a big difference to writing in the region. This year’s finalists were Edwidge Danticat in non-fiction for Creating Dangerously, Tiphanie Yanique in fiction for How to Escape from a Leper Colony and Derek Walcott in Poetry for White Egrets. Well, no prizes for guessing who won.

I attended several of the workshops which cost TT$50 each (about US$8.50): What happens next: how to build a plot with Marlon James and OCM Bocas Prize judge Mark McWatt; Words into flesh: how to create characters with OCM Bocas Prize judge David Chariandy; and What every writer wants to know: how to get published with OCM Bocas Prize judge Margaret Busby, Ken Jaikaransingh, and Jeremy Poynting.

OCM Bocas Prize judge Margaret Busby at 'how to get published' workshop
India up close: a candid look at the Subcontinent with Patrick French and Samanth Subramanian
Marlon James, Patrick French and moi

The day before Bocas started ARC magazine was launched at Alice Yard in Port of Spain. I had the pleasure of introducing the magazine to its new audience. I also have a text in it about Jamaican-born artist Andrea Chung’s work. Look out for ARC! Its the first serious all out art magazine in the Anglophone Caribbean, kudos are due to its founding editors, Vincentians Holly Bynoe and Nadia Huggins.

ARC Magazine launch at Alice Yard

Another post should follow tomorrow on Bocas…didn’t want to cram it all into one post.

The Blogging Caste


I’m really glad the Jamaican government decided to spend $12 million (Jamaican of course; J$80=US$1) on fireworks at the waterfront on New Year’s Eve. It was a mere series of blips compared to the displays in Hong Kong and Australia but they were our blips and we enjoyed them. I hear the mutterings and rumblings about how the money could have been put to better use etc but it’s not as if Jamaica is Zimbabwe or Iraq. We haven’t been ravaged by disease or war in quite the same way and there’s a limit to the difference a hundred and fifty thousand American dollars could make to the general well-being of the population.

In fact a firework display for all to enjoy was one of the few ways the money could have been used to benefit many. All things considered the fireworks did briefly manage to prop up a generally sagging public morale I think. As bad as things seemed by the end of the year at least we weren’t too poor to afford fireworks. Thousands turned out to reclaim the normally abandoned downtown and waterfront areas of Kingston and I hear Tivoli was popping with a more rollicking session of Passa Passa than usual. I’m sure vendors and hustlers did a roaring business that night. And it wasn’t just downtown. Cars and people lined the Palisadoes road all the way to the airport to watch the fireworks and set off their own.

I surveyed the numerous firework displays from the lofty heights of Stony Hill where we enjoyed a commanding view of the city. A private home in Jack’s Hill threatened to rival the fireworks at the waterfront. We viewed it as a struggle between the private sector and the public to outdo each other. The latter won, just about.

So 2008 was a rough year and 09 doesn’t promise to be any better. The Israeli pounding of Gaza underscores the grim future that awaits many of us. Meanwhile that ingenious merchant of hope, Barack Obama, gets ready to occupy the most powerful throne on earth. Will he actually make a difference? What will we be thinking and saying of him a year from now? And when is someone going to invent fast forward and rewind buttons for life so that we don’t have to leave such matters to speculation?

My new year’s resolution in 2007 was to start a blog in 2008. Determined to join the blogging caste I managed to kick start Active Voice last January and it picked up momentum during the course of the year. What an odyssey into the unknown it’s proven to be, this excursion into the blogosphere; this deepening acquaintance with the internet and cyberspace. The world wide web is a sticky place and blogs are like mini-webs spun by human arachnids who aim to trap you with silky tripwires. Not to eat those who wander into their webs but to entice them to return, again and again, leaving trails of page views and visits and occasional comments— blogfood—that rich humus that feeds the growth of blogs.

How bloggers who never receive comments or a minimum of visits continue to maintain their output is beyond me. But then again its all relative. I think i’ve done well to have received close to ten thousand hits over the last year but when you compare that to Indian bloggers whose page views number in the hundreds of thousands you may as well retire coz it’ll probably be the year 3000 by the time you get there. I mean Domain Maximus will soon reach the million viewer mark and the Compulsive Confessor is already a million plus .

So although advertisers would have us rate the success of blogs by the number of hits they attract on a per diem basis—apparently anything less than 2000 hits per day is not considered worth spending advertising dollars on —there are other indicators of blog health and success that may not be as easily quantifiable.

The other highlight for me has been allowing myself to get into Facebook in a serious way. At first I couldn’t understand why I should join such a network. It seemed to me like entertainment for the feeble-minded or ultra young with its good karma requests and its past life, monster birth and mob wars invitations (all of which can be safely ignored). Then I read a New York Times article about ‘Digital Intimacy’ or something like that which explained the whole concept of the thing and suddenly I got why it’s as innovative as it is.

From the album: Hitman Wally

Haven’t looked back since. Life without Facebook is pretty damn unimaginable today. The poverty of the print media in Jamaica was brought home to me when I read Eve Mann’s review of Sting 08 (Jamaica’s top dancehall event, held every December 26) that she posted as a note in Facebook. Her excellent account underscored the anodyne, barely competent writing we tolerate from print journalists here. It remains a mystery to me why Jamaican newspapers offer their readers a third-rate product when first-rate writing is so readily (if not as cheaply) available. Surely they realize that like anything else you get what you pay for?

This preference for second and third-best isn’t confined to Jamaica. In Trinidad and Tobago (and elsewhere) stunned readers of his column are expressing dismay that the Trinidad Express has terminated B.C. Pires’s provocative and acutely critical weekly column. Ever one to lay bare the truth with wit and originality Pires probably wasn’t as biddable as the Express would have liked. Without more information one can only speculate. In one of his last columns for the Express he interviewed himself. He was nothing if not hard-hitting and original.

Closer to home the Gleaner seems to have terminated the column of the punderous Dr. Orville Taylor (it never fails to amuse me the childish glee with which people brandish their titles here. Even ‘Mrs.’ is an honorific in Jamaica and she who has earned the right to be called ‘Mrs.’ is likely to rub it into your face with all the zeal of a Pond’s Cold Cream salesperson). Dr. Taylor liked to announce his witticisms with an advance marching band of quote marks and both bold and italic type just in case there was a reader who didn’t get it. In many ways Taylor was the opposite of B.C. Pires, lacking his finesse and acrobatic way with words and ideas, so his departure is likely to be met more with sighs of relief than regret, although he did have his fans (Stero?). Of course no one could be more grief-stricken than Dr. Taylor himself. Contrast his parting column, Swansongs and Auld Lang Syne with that of Pires, Write time, wrong place.

But guess what guys! The twenty-first century piece of all-purpose advice is no longer “Get a life!”; its “Get a blog!” Come join the blogging caste–the only caste you don’t have to be born into. So what if your papers have cut you loose? Its their loss…light a candle, sing a sankey and find your way to blogger.com! Your readers will follow suit.

%d bloggers like this: