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‘Not Just About Writers': Talking with NGC Bocas Lit Fest Founder

It has been about two weeks since the 3rd annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest ended in Trinidad and Tobago and readers, writers and litbloggers alike only just seem to be coming down from the literary euphoria. Blogger and journalist Lisa Allen-Agostini, who was one of a handful regional writers shortlisted for a key prize, called the festival “a great gift to our country and our region”.

This, of course, only made Global Voices want to chat even more with the founder and director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the indefatigable Marina Salandy-Brown, about how her germ of an idea has now evolved into the biggest literary festival in the Anglophone Caribbean.

NGC Bocas Lit Fest Founder, Marina Salandy-Brown, looks on as author Monique Roffey is presented with the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize; photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission

NGC Bocas Lit Fest Founder, Marina Salandy-Brown, looks on as author Monique Roffey is presented with the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize; photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission

Global Voices (GV): Congrats on the third year of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest! What would you say were the highlights of this year's event?

Marina Salandy-Brown (MSB): Hosting the Caribbean leg of the Edinburgh World Writers Conference that brought our region into a global conversation about the role of literature. It showed that while the questions of 50 years ago remain relevant, the focus has changed. This is important for our writers spread across a diaspora but all looking to stay connected through literature.

Having a unique and rich blend of extraordinary writers such as Olive Senior, Irvine Welsh, Marina Warner, Pankaj Mishra, Robert Antoni, Ian McDonald, Teju Cole, Earl Lovelace, Hannah Lowe, Kerry Young, quite apart from all the ones long listed and shortlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize, sharing the same space and engaging with one another and their readers. No other regional or international festival would offer that particular gift assortment.

The inaugural Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for distinguished service to Caribbean Literature commemorates someone who played a distinct and valued role in the development of our literature. Too many people labour behind the scenes and do not get recognition. We are pleased to acknowledge Swanzy's role annually and are also delighted that John La Rose and Sarah White were the first recipients. The work New Beacon Books did from the 1960s to now in publishing, editing and promoting our literature and intellectual life is unrivalled.

The launch of Carib Lit to provide online resources for writers, publishers and readers in the region who have always lacked access to them and the news coming out of the work of this literary action group (established just a year as a joint Bocas, British Council and Commonwealth Writers initiative) that a new Caribbean imprint is a distinct reality.

It is important to reward excellence as much as it is to groom it. The OCM Bocas Prize for the best Caribbean book of the previous year, the Hollick Arvon Prize for emerging writers, and the announcement of a new prize for writers of young adult literature – the Burt Award, made all our hearts sing. Together, they cover a broad spectrum of writers. Prizes are confirmation for writers but the very judging process brings attention to the work of all the writers who enter, not only the ones who win.

Olive Senior, image by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Olive Senior, image by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

GV: Why is Bocas an important event for Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean region?

MSB: The festival is a great event but it also only one aspect, albeit an important one, of the Bocas project. It is the shop window for our work, which focuses on our literature reclaiming the place and position it has lost to the competing interests of music and Carnival. The festival is a T&T affair, done in our style and drawing on our resources, but it is inclusive of our region and wherever our people live. It is also not just about writers, it is about readers and those interested in what books have to say, not just how their authors say it.

GV: What makes Bocas different from other regional litfests like Calabash (the genre's regional originator), and those in St. Lucia, Cuba and Antigua?

MSB: The NGC Bocas Lit Fest is different in the range and variety of its programme. The month-long Children's Festival that culminates in a parallel 4-day festival on the same site is not replicated anywhere else. We have a strong enabling element to the festival, so that our workshops on all matters related to creative writing is also unique. We offer a full film programme, open mic, discussions, lectures. We showcase new talent, written and spoken [word] too. We involve everybody – booksellers, artists, performers, musicians. This is a festival of more than the written word.

A cross section of the crowd at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2013, photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

A cross section of the crowd at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2013, photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

GV: How has Bocas used new and social media – web presence, Facebook, Twitter, blogs – to promote and add value to the festival? What kind of impact has it had?

MSB: The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference sessions were streamed live to dozens of foreign countries and the degree of participation was extremely high. Social media was integral to those sessions and it proved very effective in bringing Trinidad and Tobago to the attention of people around the world who share the same interests but did not know about us. They were actively able to add their voices to the debates.

We could not not have a blogger! We blog to get the news out, that is the new front page. We tweet too. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting that has sold over 1 million copies (and the film of the same name is a watershed film – which he introduced [at Bocas]), has a huge Twitter following and he was tweeting for weeks before about coming to Port of Spain. That alone would have helped locate us on the map. We also follow writers on Twitter.

Using Facebook to promote events, especially ones of particular appeal to a younger audience such as the open mic and spoken word events, was essential. A large part of the population no longer gets news from traditional sources. The new technology allows us to track our patrons and informs us of the impact we are having. This is critical for futre planning.

Writer Earl Lovelace at the 2013 Bocas Lit Fest, photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Writer Earl Lovelace at the 2013 Bocas Lit Fest, photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

GV: In what ways do you think Bocas is having an effect on writing and reading in the region?

MSB: We are trying to awaken and rekindle an interest in our literary output and to make it possible for the very many people who are writing, unsupported and unknown, to feel part of a community that is large and growing and to become part of an established literary world where they can hone their craft, get their books published and get their work out there to readers using all the means that are at our disposal.

We want to create excitement and optimism around the business of writing for oneself and others, of discovering and creating a “new” literature while drawing from the canon and the oral traditions. Creative writing is not just for pleasure. Publishing fiction, non-fiction and poetry are an industry and for our work to be taken seriously we must take ourselves seriously and benchmark ourselves against the best. The festival provides a forum for that talent and a marketplace for buyers, creators and consumers of this sort of produce.

Barbara Jenkins, winner of the inaugural Hollick Arvon Prize, photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Barbara Jenkins, winner of the inaugural Hollick Arvon Prize, photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

GV: Where do you see the future of the festival going? What's on the cards for next year?

MSB: One of the important lines of discussion that has come up is how are we to become better readers? Writers need good readers but they too must be good readers. In fact, good readers make better writers. This is an area that Bocas sees as fertile for development and we are exploring ways of how to achieve this. We tried last year to start that part of the project but failed to get funding. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we have better luck this year.

Apart from this, we have no plans to change much but we are flexible and things have a way of emerging. We are keeping our ears wide open to hear what people say, our eyes are open too to espy developments and to play a part in helping those along. Working with others to achieve mutal objectives is part of our mission so we will be expanding our partnerships as we go forward.

The images used in this post are by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

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