Readers wanted

In introductions our first day, another student in my UWI creative writing programme shared his goal—write a book that gets on the CXC syllabus. For a Caribbean writer, is there any greater ambition? Who else reads Caribbean literature? A promotional flyer for a Duke University Press Caribbean anthology I’m in, released that same year, listed shipping rates for the US, Canada and Europe; not the Caribbean.

Who is reading Caribbean books? A survey by the Caribbean Literature Action Group (a two-year-old initiative among writers, publishers, literary festivals, and academic literature programmes) is asking. You can complete it at: www.cariblit.org/survey.html, and learn about the state of Caribbean writing and publishing browsing the CaribLit blog.

Who is reading at all? One of the smartest homegrown NGOs I’ve encountered is ALTA, the 22-year-old Adult Literacy Tutors Association. With branches at the Arima PTSC mall and St. Paul’s Anglican cathedral on Harris Promenade, ALTA’s headquarters is part of a growing nonprofit community in Belmont. Its mission to strengthen national literacy and core programme year-round classes for those 16+, ALTA combines a strong volunteer component, visionary leadership, public-private partnerships, and a commitment to accountability and assessment.

Year-after-year, official data show T&T’s literacy rate a stubbornly proud 99%. Yet, a 1994 ALTA survey says almost a quarter of us are functionally illiterate, and paints a portrait of who—older people of Indian descent living in central and south Trinidad who work at home. Another, 1995 UWI survey suggests only 45% of us can read this column. This year ALTA launches a new initiative in partnership with the NGC BocasLitFest, where the constellation of writers the four-year-old festival has been highlighting read their work to students in ALTA’s reading circles. Recently Belmont native Barbara Jenkins read from her highly acclaimed debut book Sic Transit Wagon for the Belmont circle.

We don’t have a public “culture” of reading, ALTA director Paula Lucie-Smith notes, observing how elsewhere default activity for commuting and waiting rooms is reading a book. She shares how Jenkins’s stories brought Belmont alive for students. “Tantie” Merle Hodge has taught generations of UWI students to write, and co-anchors a biennial Cropper Foundation summer workshop for promising Caribbean writers in northeast Trinidad. She often talks about this power of writing to shape imagination, how as a girl reading about temperate England in storybooks she understood seasons she had never experienced. The challenge, Lucie-Smith says, is to create these imaginative landscapes of our own spaces for Caribbean readers.

One stalwart in creating a culture of reading is Joan Dayal, who has seen many others come and go as she has kept open her tiny literary bookshop in the Hotel Normandie over 27 years. Dayal’s Paper Based has Shivanee Ramlochan curate “afternoon tea” readings featuring local and visiting writers, published and unpublished. A St. Mary’s College class traipsed noisily into a lunchtime reading session last week during UWI’s Campus Literature Week, an annual series that brings creative writing students and local authors together, and provides a showcase for UWI’s writer-in-residence. But the readings’ timing and library location limit their audience.

There is no shortage of Caribbean books, or writers, however. Jeremy Poynting’s Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press has become a powerhouse and gatekeeper in Caribbean literary publishing. It’s also bringing back into print several Caribbean classics. The press lists some 350 titles by over 100 authors, and is one of the first places new Caribbean writers with a first book go knocking. Literary festivals are blooming across the region. In addition to Bocas, Barbados’s Bim Lit Fest is back this year, May 15-17. So too, May 30-June 1, is the region’s once signature festival, Jamaica’s Calabash, a 13-year-old effort that’s been on-again-off-again for the last few, a challenge for sleepy Treasure Beach’s economy, where it has been a critical force.

Indeed, as Trini-British writer Monique Roffey notes repeatedly, we are in one of the most exciting periods for Caribbean literature, with an outpouring of new and diverse voices, at home and in diaspora, joining those on the CXC syllabus. Roffey, whose Archipelago won the OCM Bocas Prize last year, has become an important feature on the local landscape, providing a much missing ingredient. A writing teacher for many years, she is mentoring and building a writing community among a group of emerging writers now called the “St. James Writers Room”. I’m a part of it, but overshadowed by some outsized talents that include Chike Pilgrim and Ivory Hayes, who also work in spoken-word, a genre where the 2 Cents Movement, under Jean-Claude Cournand and Mickel Alexander’s leadership, is blowing up what an early “generation”, amusingly, of writers like Muhammad Muwakil pioneered, building on rapso traditions. 2 Cents and BocasLit partnered with corporate sponsors to bring spoken word into the mainstream of the festival, now with a $10,000 prize.

Yes, it all keeps coming back to BocasLitFest and the literary mangrove blossoming around the sprawling event the incredible renaissance pair of Marina Salandy-Brown and Nicholas Laughlin are building. Concentrated around April 23-27 and NALIS, I’ll say more about it next time. Sneak peek—part of its commemoration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, BocasLit screens Private Romeo, Alan Brown’s film adaptation of the quintessential lovestory in Western literature, set in a military academy where teenage boys learning the bard in class use his language to explore their unexpected romance.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation, many bodies, boundless faith

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