Firing the canon at Bocas Lit Fest 2017

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Trinidad’s Kaiso Blues Cafe was packed. Elbows poked ribs. Waitresses squeezed through tight spaces with loaded plates. And ears strained to hear the poets unfold their words on the small stage. This was Bocas Lit Fest on the road. Most of ‘Trinidad and Tobago’s annual celebration of books, writing and writers’ took place at the national library (NALIS) and adjacent Old Fire Station. But a few evening events, like this, had been organised to take the book beyond the four institutional walls of the library.

As well as poetry readings and music, the night included a lively conversation between two writers – Jamaican poet Kei Miller (winner of this year’s 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for fiction) and Trinidad’s own Vahni Capildeo – chaired by the UK’s Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation. Herbert began by saying that coming from the UK to Bocas felt like moving from the ‘periphery’ of Caribbean writing to the centre. She asked about the next “literary canon”. Who would be in it? Where would it be centred?

It’s a tempting idea: a literary canon made up of writers from across the Caribbean, influencing education, debate and thought around the world. And, it seems, not inconceivable. Already the publishing world is opening up. “This is a really good time to look for US representation” enthused American literary agent Barry Goldblatt. “Diversity is not a trend”. This shift, this widening, is no flash in the pan – and Bocas knows it. Little wonder there was a certain optimism and excitement in the air.

But like the colonial governors who were replaced by a new, local elite across much of the Caribbean, is putting a new face on existing structures, terminology and norms the way to go? Answering Herbert’s question, Capildeo cooly answered: no, we don’t need a new literary canon. A new empire. (I wish I had a recording of this exchange to get the wording exactly but hopefully this is coming). Rather than a pyramid, Bocas offers a web of literary connections, one that the spider writers lightly navigate – collecting juicy titbits from other places, spinning new connections and bending the rules.

In a discussion with Jennifer Rahim about her new book Curfew Chronicles, on the state of emergency declared in Trinidad in 2011, Peepal Tree Press founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting recalled a discussion the two had had during the editing process. The question: should certain words, cultural references and other details unfamiliar to, say, a UK audience be explained? The answer, in the end, was no. Perhaps times are changing. Where once Caribbean readers had to sit and imagine snowy landscapes, ripe peaches and pebbled beaches, European readers now must discover what it means to see a scarlet ibis fly overhead, bite into a double, and ‘gah lang’. 

As the focus shifts, perhaps Caribbean writers will no longer need to be compared to their Western equivalent, be it Chaucer, James Joyce, William Wordsworth or Shakespeare. As was done by some moderators at Bocas. Instead writers from all nations will be allowed to step across borders, borrow other languages, cultures, words, influences and perspectives. In his conversation with the American essayist Eliot Weinberger, Bocas programmer director Nicholas Laughlin asked about Weinberger’s term ‘post-national writer’. Despite being coined some 12 years ago, the concept remains fresh today. Questions about identity and nationalism pervaded many Bocas discussions and debates.

There’s a current desire among not only post-colonial nations but also former colonising nations to create a ‘national identity’. What does it mean to be English/American/Algerian/South African/Jamaican/Guyanese? “Our consistent desire to manifest as this one monolithic identity doesn’t make sense,” said the Kenyan journalist and writer Peter Kimani in his session. And yet, ironically, it is also that literature helps construct identity – and power. A writer reflects, distorts, challenges and lays bare a country, a people, a community. Through their words we come to understand ourselves, see where we’ve been, and where we might go next. And the stronger a country’s literary heritage, the greater its cultural reach.

When Weinberger commented, “I was a little surprised that people here still look at England as a place of valuation”, it wasn’t an easy stab to take. A member of the audience quickly stood up to say that England simply offered more of a market than the US, in her opinion. That the UK had given more platforms to Caribbean writers. To reduce this reliance, there’s a need to build up the literary infrastructure in the Caribbean. Publishing houses, editors, copy editors, production staff, publicists… “Writing is really the only thing you can do by yourself,” noted writer/editor/book developer Malaika Adero in a talk on publishing. “Everything else requires a village.”

 

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