The Edinburgh World Writers' Conference (EWWC) debates hosted by the 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest did not live up to the reputation of that first seminal Edinburgh Writers Conference in 1962, which reportedly went on for hours and featured passionate and outrageous debate. Maybe the Caribbean leg should have allotted more than 90 minutes for the author panel to shake off civility and really get into the meat of a controversial argument.
Nevertheless, the discussions that ensued from the debate questions, "Should Literature be Political?" and "A National Literature?" proved to be very stimulating to authors and audience members alike.
The first debate, held on April 27, led off with a keynote address from celebrated Jamaican novelist Marlon James. "There is an immediate pitfall in the term 'national literature'; any categorisation is reductive," he said during his address. T&T poet Vahni Capildeo, who was also on the panel, agreed with James that for the West Indies, the term national literature may have to be replaced with "regional literature."
Other panellists included chair Marina Warner, a celebrated UK author; Trainspotting author Scotsman Irvine Welsh; and UK poet Hannah Lowe, who admitted that her country had been "fog horning" its own story louder than any other national stories for a long time and she didn't want to be a part of that heritage. "If you're in a place where your stories have been suppressed and ignored, I can see that the question of a national literature would be important."
Welsh, along with others in the audience, was most concerned with the corrupting effect of the publishing industry in forcing writers to write into "marketing holes" and ignore the national stories that they wanted to tell.
The second instalment of the debates, held on April 28, became a little more heated than the previous day's discussion; politics can have that effect. This time, only keynote speaker Olive Senior, also a Jamaican author, addressed the audience. Afterward the panel jumped straight into discussion on the politics of national governance, of self and of writers' relationships with their country of citizenship.
"We are all enmeshed in politics because we are all citizens of somewhere," Senior said. "Literature is political because we as the creators of literature are political beings." Fellow panellist Earl Lovelace was most concerned with the politics of identity: "We all born in a place, and we born in a position and we have to represent that. For me the question has always been about taking your place in the world."
UK writer Courttia Newland also spoke about the need to claim a place in the imagination of self and thus in the politics of self. "Growing up in London I felt that I and the people around me were largely unseen," the author, of Jamaican and Barbadian heritage, explained.
Panellist Pankaj Mishra, an Indian historian, expressed some doubt as to whether or not the question of literature being political should really be addressed to writers in the post-colonial world. He said that the question might be better posed to writers in the Anglo-American world where writing is political and has always been political.
The questions from the audience began to really challenge both the authors and audience. For instance, audience members wondered whether or not the politics of religion had a place in the discussion, or if the idea of a cosmopolitan writer is a smug phenomenon that contributes to the corruption of a writer by multi-national publishers with a commercial agenda. Sadly, these threads could not reach their conclusion in the time allotted, but they definitely got everyone's blood flowing.
"We have to depend first on ourselves," Lovelace said forcefully. "If we want to build a society, we can't build it abroad; we have to build it here."