Big t’ings a gwan in Caribbean literature, to use a Jamaican expression. Big things, indeed, starting with this week’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which runs from Thursday to Sunday at the National Library. Next month (May 16-20), Barbados gets into the act with the inaugural Bim Literary Festival; and hard on the heels of that is the resurrected Calabash Literary Festival, which takes place May 25-27 in Jamaica. As a writer and bibliophile this embarrassment of riches pleases me; it also augurs well for the further development of publishing and writing in the region. The region has birthed three Nobel laureates in literature—St Lucian Derek Walcott, Trinidadian VS Naipaul and Guadeloupean poet Saint-John Perse—and continues to give talented writers to the world.
Guyanese/Grenadian writer Malika Booker has been poet in residence at The Royal Shakespeare Co, in the UK, since 2010; Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace has won several international prizes of note, including the Commonwealth Writers prize and is in line for the OCM Bocas Prize this year; and only two weeks ago it was announced that Jamaican/ Ghanaian poet and Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a highly prestigious award in the US. Given all that, it is somewhat surprising that the region’s own publishing industry remains so stuck. As I have previously noted here, there are too few publishers of poetry and fiction, and the marketing and distribution of books in the region by regional publishers remains an almost insurmountable challenge. It is certainly not because we have no good writers, as I have just indicated. It is not that we are not readers—T&T alone boasts a preponderous number of newspapers and magazines, as do Jamaica and Guyana.
Publishing is an inherently risky proposition, made more so in the Caribbean by the difficulties concomitant with living in an archipelago; you can’t just load up some books in the back of your car and drive from Tobago to the Bim Literary Festival, for example. Island isolation also prevents us from seeing and claiming the whole region as ours, the post-Federation anxiety of island identities pressing against our clear similarities and cutting them off. These and other talking points will be tabled at the one-day meeting of the Caribbean Literature Action Group (CALAG), to be held Wednesday in Port-of-Spain. CALAG, of which I am privileged to be a member, will bring together 20 writers, editors, publishers, booksellers and others involved in the development of Caribbean literature, to look for ways to resolve some of these issues that have stymied our publishing industry and driven some of our best writers to look for livelihoods and publication elsewhere. As an author and editor myself, and as the founder of an NGO for the development of teen T&T writers, The Allen Prize for Young Writers, I am keenly interested in working towards the resolution of these issues. I hope that CALAG will yield actionable ideas for the participants and the CALAG organisers, the British Council, Commonwealth Writers and the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.
Bocas starts on Thursday and I’m humbled to play a part in it, as I did in the inaugural festival last year. This year, as part of Bocas, The Allen Prize will give awards to its 2012 competition winners and hear readings from its 2011 winners. I am deeply grateful to Bocas for giving The Allen Prize the opportunity to hold this ceremony as a part of the festival, because it means the organisation will be brought to the attention of a wider public and the young writers will have a wider audience. In a radio interview on the weekend, Raymond Edwards of Talk City 91.9 FM asked me whether Bocas would have events for folks who aren’t necessarily crazy about books. I humbly suggest that The Allen Prize reading is one such event. These young people are our future Kwame Dawes and Malika Bookers, and they do not have to grow up isolated and fumbling in the dark for mentorship and encouragement. With luck, grace, and plen-ty of hard work, we will make this a better region for writers and publishers by the time they grow up. The Allen Prize for Young Writers announcement ceremony and reading takes place on Sunday, at 3 pm, at the AV Room of the National Library, Port-of-Spain, as part of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. It is free and open to the public. For a complete Bocas schedule, go to www.bocaslitfest.com