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Acclaimed authors preview south Bocas lit fest

Published: 
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Local author Robert Antoni, left, and his British colleague Prof Caryl Phillips, right, captivated an audience attending the Anthony N Sabga (ANSA) Caribbean Awards for Excellence special presentation of a Literary Conversation held at the Learning Resource Centre at UWI, St Augustine, on October 3. Local author Raymond Ramcharitar, centre. Photo: Sean Nero

The third annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest South comes off this afternoon at San Fernando Hill. Last weekend two writers who had been celebrated in previous years by Bocas gave an audience at the Learning Resource Centre in UWI, St Augustine, a taste of what people can expect at today’s event.

Author Robert Antoni, who was born in the US to Trinidadian parents, won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature last year for his book As Flies to Whatless Boys.

Author Caryl Phillips, who grew up in Britain but whose parents were from St Kitts, was long-listed for the Bocas Prize in 2012 for the essay collection Colour Me English: Thoughts About Migrations and Belonging Before and After 9/11. 

Antoni and Phillips are friends with each other and with Raymond Ramcharitar, who is also an author and who moderated a discussion between the two that ranged from the reception of Caribbean literature abroad to the fate of books in the age of social media and smart phones. The men also read passages from their latest books: Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys and The Lost Child from Phillips.

“The opportunity to have some of our best writers here is what Bocas is about,” said Marina Salandy-Brown, founder and director of the Bocas festival. She explained that she would have liked the men to come for Bocas South but they had other engagements. 

The authors responded to a question from Ramcharitar about how their work is received by audiences in Europe and America. 

“For some reason I’ve found a large and enthusiastic readership in Finland,” said Antoni to laughter from the audience.

“Who can explain that? Except that they have a lot of s--- and farts in their jokes, and I guess so do I. They have a very bawdy sense of humour.

“You write for the story that’s being told. That’s what guides me,” he added more seriously.

“I have to trust in that—that wherever I take it, people will respond even if they’ve never heard of Trinidad.”

Phillips said that in the past there was more scepticism towards Caribbean writers and writing in Britain than there is today.

“I think literature has become more globalised and national boundaries are not as important in literature as they were,” he said.

“It seems to me [Caribbean literature] is part of a more global phenomenon where writers of all sorts of different backgrounds tend to travel a lot more and tend to read their work in front of much more cosmopolitan audiences.”

During the Q&A, two audience members asked questions about the impact of social media and smartphone technology on reading. 

Antoni said he was concerned about what would happen to society if “all of your relationships are virtual.” But, he added, “the other part of me says you can’t fear all of that.”

“I think what’s going to happen is technology is going to transform the way we tell our stories and the way those stories are transmitted. They’re probably not going to be paper-based. They’re going to be electronic—like it or not,” he said.

Phillips worries that digital technology is upending “the great moral purpose of literature,” which is to encourage empathy and to remind us that in spite of our differences “we are all part of one family”

“If we were not part of one family, we wouldn’t be able to read Anna Karenina and feel anything. We wouldn’t be able to watch Ibsen plays and feel anything,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to read a novel by an Indian novelist. We wouldn’t be able to read Gabriel García Márquez.

“The platforms, the media that we’re talking about [are] so damn narcissistic that it is working against the impulse in literature towards empathy,” he said. 

The event was a partnership between Bocas, the ANSA McAl Caribbean Awards for Excellence (ANSCAFE), UWI, St Augustine, and the University of T&T. It was streamed online at the ANSCAFE website. Caryl Philips won an ANSCAFE award in 2013.

“The purpose of these events is to promote the work of our laureates and by extension knowledge and excellence,” said Maria Superville-Nielson, who spearheads the awards, in closing remarks. “We wish all people to become familiar with excellence and to know those who have attained it are in their midst and that it is attainable.”

Ramcharitar, who is in charge of communications for ANSCAFE, said events like the Phillips/Antoni discussion are important.

“We’d like to do much more,” he said.

“We’ve committed to having one public lecture every year of our laureates.”

Superville-Nielson told the audience of Ramcharitar’s excitement in getting to spend time with the two other authors.

“Raymond picked them up from the airport on Thursday night,” she said, drawing laughter, “and he came in at about five to eight on Friday morning, and he said, ‘You know, I miss talking to writers about writing.’ He was so invigorated, and that’s what this is all about, getting our students to interface with these accomplished writers, these great minds.”

The five-year-old Bocas Lit Fest has been expanding outside of Port-of-Spain and its main event in April. There’s now Bocas South in October and Bocas Tobago in July. Next month Bocas will present readings and a conversation with three writers from the English-speaking Caribbean at the Miami Book Fair.

Bocas South will include writing workshops, a discussion with Canadian-Trinidadian author Sabrina Ramnanan, spoken word performances and many more events.