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Bocas feeds pride in Caribbean Lit

Monday, May 5, 2014
Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott, centre, is surrounded by other Caribbean writers in this picture from last week’s 2014 NGC Bocas Lit Fest. At right is Walcott’s daughter Dr Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, who launched her first novel, Mrs B, at the festival on its final day last Sunday. From left are winners of the 2014 OCM Bocas Prize Lorna Goodison (poetry), overall winner Robert Antoni (fiction) and Dr Kei Miller (non-fiction). PHOTO: KRISTIAN DE SILVA

The dust has settled on the NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2014. 


T&T’s literati have retreated from the National Library back to their bookish enclaves to listen to Bocas Radio webcasts, some of them suffering from what is known as “Bocas tabanca.”


The dust is collecting on old copies of paperback books which had been dusted down and nostalgically perused. 


Yet there is no fear in this handful of dust. The Caribbean literary world has again been treated to five days of fearless writing and fearless reading. Shiny new novels have been printed, signed and sold. Poetry has been performed, prizes dispensed, workshops workshopped, films screened.


Schoolchildren have come into close contact with the literary genre. A host of authors have flown back home, their appetite for T&T sated for another year, among them Linton Kwesi Johnson, Caryl Phillips and Lorna Goodison, to name a few.


The T&T Guardian spoke to four people intimately involved in the 2014 festival to get their inside take on how it unfolded.




Nicholas Laughlin  - Programme director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest


What were your personal highlights at this year’s Bocas?

Our Friday-night poetry event at Bohemia. We had nine poets plus two surprise guests to commemorate the 60th birth year of the late Mikey Smith. It’s incredible that we had Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lorna Goodison, Mervyn Morris, Kwame Dawes, Anthony Joseph, Vahni Capildeo, and Kei Miller together on one stage, plus some extremely talented newer voices. It felt historic. When Linton read Mikey Smith’s iconic poem Mi Cyaan Believe It, I don’t think anyone with a historical sense of Caribbean poetry can have been unmoved.


I felt a quieter version of the same emotion the following morning, when a small group of Guyanese writers paid tribute to the poet and editor AJ Seymour, one of the people who gave West Indian literature a sense of its own worth in the 1940s and 50s. 


The event I enjoyed most was the Sunday-afternoon discussion on Shakespeare, a raucous, insightful conversation on Shakespeare’s relevance to the Caribbean 450 years after his birth. 


And one element that excites me every year is the space we make for new, emerging writers. 



What feedback have you got?



What the writers enjoy most is the informality and geniality of the festival, and the chance to meet old friends and admired peers. Our audience likes the accessibility of the writers. It’s really easy at Bocas to run into a favourite author, have a conversation, pose for a photo. 

Do you see the same faces attending each year or were there newbies? 


It’s encouraging to see repeat visitors as well as new faces. It’s a continuing effort to bring in new audiences and convince people who don’t think of themselves as “literary.” Historically, books and literature have been seen as the province of a cultural elite. That shouldn’t be so, and we’re always trying to imagine new ways to break that preconception.


We’ve begun staging Bocas events year-round in South, Central and in Tobago. It’s also fascinating to see youthfulness of the crowds that come to the Verses Bocas Poetry Slam. Literally hundreds had to be turned away from the finals because they could not physically fit in the venue. 




Ayanna Gillian Lloyd - Emerging fiction writer



The Who’s Next showcase was my second public reading. The first was at UWI’s Campus Lit Fest. Both were prompted by the St James Writer’s Room led by Monique Roffey as part of her programme to develop new writers. I was thrilled when Bocas asked me to be part of the showcase. It’s a well organised, carefully thought out event, I left feeling energised and near euphoric.


I found all the writers really approachable and willing to share advice with new writers. Some of my personal highlights were meeting Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lorna Goodison and Kei Miller. Because Bocas is so small and intimate there’s no huge divide between established authors and new writers. I’ve made good friends at Bocas who have become mentors. The best advice was from LKJ: don’t stop! 


I read an excerpt inspired by the events after the death of my mother. It dealt with the experience of dressing her body in the funeral home. Hard to write and harder to read. Fiction, even when inspired by life events is still fiction, though. 


The treatment, the selection of the narrative voice, the causal relationship between scenes is still critical. Its not life vomit, it’s not therapy, it’s art. 


I come from a family of readers, teachers and musicians. About two years ago I started working on my writing more seriously, getting down the stories that had been living in my head.


It’s difficult to say whether there even is a young literary scene in T&T. Spoken-word events are more popular with young people than text-bound poetry. 


Anyone who is seriously interested in developing as a writer in T&T comes to Bocas. Hopefully in future there will be more literary agents attending, including those not known for publishing Caribbean writing. And it would be great to see panel discussions of the work of young local writers.



Idrees Jali Saleem - Winner of the Verses Bocas Poetry Slam Finals 2014



Last year I placed fifth in the spoken-word competition. This year I was part of the open mic events and was impressed by the way everything flowed and was held together by a small band of big hearts. 


I met great writers, Earl Lovelace, Gillian Moor and Vladmir Lucien amongst others. There were conversations about probable performances abroad and encouragements to continue along my path.


I performed a piece on claiming and creating my identity as a performer. While emulating and acknowledging the greats, I seek my own print in spoken-word history. It was performed in the form of an exchange of banter between myself and a robot who claims he is responsible for my lyrical prowess.


I have loved writing for as long as I can remember and I was always a performer, it runs through my family on both sides, but I didn’t love the stage. Anxiety was my biggest issue. But I was introduced to the stage thru the St Augustine drama club seven years ago. Two years later I was introduced to spoken word through Muhammad Muwakil of Freetown Collective. He was president of an open-mic forum on campus by the name of U.We Speak. 


The stage is a drug. When you add “I have something to say” to that mix, it becomes something exhilarating. The feeling of competition, especially when you know how fiery these competitors are, can make your heart explode. Your composure must be that of a monk’s. But although I was nervous, the support was extraordinary.




Vladimir Lucien - St Lucian author of Sounding Ground


I’ve always had this strange vision of how nations come into being: people moving around in the same space, shoulders brushing, ears catching the various voices and through some cumulative process, the nation is born. This is similar to how I see Bocas. A place where Caribbean literature is reaffirmed by the numerous events but also just being in that space, walking between events, liming.


I met several writers, including Kwame Dawes, who edited my collection, Kei Miller, who is a pleasure to meet and a phenomenal poet. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s presence was powerful for many of us in many ways. Caz Phillips is most certainly one of my heroes. Mervyn Morris is a presence that is both soft and sturdy. Lorna Goodison is a beautiful presence. Younger writers like Malika Booker, Anthony Joseph, Lauren Alleyne, Gaiutra Bahadur, No-Violet Bulawayo, Roland Watson Grant. So many amazing human beings. 


Sounding Ground pays tribute to all kinds of influences. I reflect on the life and death of Walter Rodney. There’s a poem written when I visited CLR James’ grave a few years ago. The poems flit about the language complex/continuum of St Lucia. I feel immensely privileged to have a book under that category: Caribbean literature. 


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