NGC Bocas Lit Fest at Seven

 “Caribbean poetry’s new wave,” Bocas Lit Fest 2017 panel discussion with Ishion Hutchinson, Safiya Sinclair and Rajiv Mohabir,

Part of “Caribbean poetry’s new wave”: Ishion Hutchinson, Safiya Sinclair and Rajiv Mohabir.  Photo Copyright © 2017 by Bocas Lit Fest.


MAKE NO MISTAKE, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest out of Trinidad’s Port of Spain is big. It describes itself in this, its seventh year, as “the Caribbean’s biggest festival of words, stories and ideas.” Each year that the festival flexes its literary muscles, they are larger than they were in the previous one. 

For 2017, they added to the programme Cine Lit: a Latin American and Caribbean Literary Film Festival, with some 27 films listed to be shown. In the five days of the festival, from April 26 to 30, there were 59 advertised public events on its programme and 15 parallel children’s activities. Beyond these are additional literary events throughout the year under the Bocas Lit Fest banner, with special events thrown in for good measure: for example, broadcast readings from the Port of Spain prison that included the work of those who weren’t leaving there any time soon.  

The festival can now claim world bragging rights as well. In February 2017, Penguin Random House produced a list of the 20 best literary festivals around the world from probably many hundreds. Among their best, and coming in at 18 in their list, was the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. 

Highlights of this year’s festival included a tribute to the late Derek Walcott, two forums devoted to the ideas of CLR James and Lloyd Best, and discussions on human rights issues such as press freedom, LGBT rights, and the criminal justice and prison system. The entire programme remains under the watchful eye of its diminutive, visionary director, Marina Salandy-Brown, and its organizing director, the apparently tireless Nicholas Laughlin. Between them, they marshal a handful of paid staff and a complement of volunteers. Some of these volunteers take leave from their day jobs to help out as ushers, car drivers and in other humdrum but essential day-to-day activities to ensure the festival’s smooth running. 

So, with all these accolades and salaams and all this commitment, a cool assessment of what the festival is all about is perhaps overdue. The cultural analyst Belinda Edmondson comes closest to capturing its essence.  In her book Caribbean Middlebrow: Leisure Culture and the Middle Class, she describes what she calls the “cultural conundrum” of the modern Caribbean.  The essence of this conundrum, she states, comprises “the competing desires for authentic culture, middle-class status and global appeal.”  It is a conundrum that the festival well represents. 

The anxiety over “authenticity” is the wish to make legitimate the Caribbean’s black and East-Indian working-class contribution. It is captured in the often repeated euphemism from the festival platform about “bringing our budding writers along.” And for middle-class status, just attend any structured panel session: you’ll find well-heeled audiences numbering regularly 30 to 60 people who politely sit to listen and ask a question or two at the end.

 Alternatively, attend the formal and valuable ceremonies that award big cash prizes—CODE's Burt Award for writers of young adult fiction (won by Viviana Prado-Núñez of Puerto Rico for The Art of White Roses this year) and the OCM Bocas Prize in three categories of poetry, novel and literary non-fiction, from which is chosen an overall winner. These are the events around which the festival is centered each year. The 2017 overall winner was the Jamaican poet and academic Kei Miller (he is Professor of Creative Writing at Exeter University in England) with his latest novel, Augustown. The poetry prize was won by Safiya Sinclair, author of Cannibal, and the creative non-fiction prize was won by the late Angelo Bissessarsingh for his A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago

The binary that Edmondson describes is brought together in the finals of the annual national spoken word competition that closes the festival with its own prize. This annual event fills the national auditorium. In contrast to those panel sessions and the various prize-giving ceremonies, it pulls in around 1 000 people. It is noisy, and the audience is enthusiastic for one or another contestant from various spoken word groups around Trinidad. In this context you can forget those cool barbs or put-downs of this or that author’s critical appeal. 

But the anxiety for literary global appeal brings with it some Caribbean defensiveness. In a panel showcasing “Caribbean poetry’s new wave” with Ishion Hutchinson, Safiya Sinclair and Rajiv Mohabir, a review of Hutchinson’s poetry collection House of Lords and Commons by William Logan, the poetry critic of The New York Times, came under the panel’s spotlight. Hutchinson, in a Facebook response, noted that Logan had “generously and seriously reviewed” his book. But, as the chair of the panel pointed out, in his review Logan had dared to criticize Walcott by contrasting Hutchinson’s command of a persona’s voice with Walcott’s, “whose attempts at island patois,” Logan suggested, “sound forced.”

“Well,” as Paul Keens-Douglas might say, “who tell he say dat?” There followed a righteous rustling of audience feathers. Your correspondent was too old or too tired to point out that, some years ago in his History of the Voice, Kamau Brathwaite had raised a similar criticism of Walcott’s command of “nation language” when Brathwaite took up arms against the pentameter. So what have we here? A straw poll from one audience that suggests signs of growing pains? A sign of a Caribbean literary orthodoxy? Who knows? Perhaps the middle-class audience needs bringing along, too.  

Philip Nanton is a Caribbean poet and scholar.  His most recent books are the non-fiction work Frontiers of the Caribbean and the poetry collection Canouan Suite & Other Pieces.  He is Honorary Research Associate at the University of Birmingham and an occasional lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, in Barbados.  He has made several radio documentaries on Caribbean literature and culture for the BBC.