WHEN the Bocas Lit Fest was inaugurated in 2011, its aim was both ambitious and long overdue—“to celebrate books, writers and writing from the Caribbean and the rest of the world”.
The idea of a literary festival was met with a level of enthusiasm and eager anticipation that one would expect from a famished person who looks forward to his next meal. Bibliophiles were thrilled there was to be a festival that would not only satisfy their appetite for literature written by Caribbean men and women but also bring together readers and writers in Trinidad and Tobago, the region and beyond under the same roof.
Now in its tenth year and known as the NGC Bocas Lit Fest—T&T’s very own literary festival has grown to become the largest of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean, and is now one of the most highly anticipated events on the calendar. In fact, it was voted among the top 20 of the world’s best literary festivals by Penguin Random House.
Each year during the last week of April, Port of Spain is designated the hub of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and is abuzz with performances, readings, panel discussions, workshops, art exhibitions, prize ceremonies and the popular First Citizens Spoken Word Competition. The Children’s Festival is held concurrently with the Bocas Lit Fest.
In the past ten years, the festival has succeeded in inspiring and exposing a new generation of Caribbean writers to the outside world. This exposure has resulted in what can only be described as a new golden age for Caribbean authors, for example, in the past five years, several Caribbean writers including Marlon James, Kei Miller and Vahni Capildeo have either been short-listed or have won significant international literary prizes. Only last week, Trinidad-born Roger Robinson won the prestigious TS Eliot prize for his newest poetry collection. He became the second Caribbean man, after Derek Walcott, to be awarded that world-renowned prize.
How the literary festival was born
At The Writers Centre on Alcazar Street, St Clair, a small team collaborates and brainstorms over ideas, carefully curating those that would be featured at their flagship event—the NGC Bocas Lit Festival.
“The success of the festival has only been made possible through the energy, inspiration and dynamism of Marina. She’s a generator,” says Ken Attale, one of the board members of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.
By “Marina”, Attale is referring to Marina Salandy-Brown, the founder and director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Salandy-Brown explained to the Express that the idea to establish a literary festival began to germinate in her mind back in 2004. The festival was founded and officially registered in 2010, and a year later, the festival and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature were born. Salandy-Brown has always believed that the region which has produced two Nobel laureates has taken for granted the enormous heritage left behind by literary giants. It was the NGO’s (non-governmental organisation) aim to prove that Caribbean writers belong on the world stage.
There were many critics who argued there are no readers or writers here and, therefore, a literary festival would never work in T&T. But there was no doubt in Salandy-Brown’s mind that it would work. What the naysayers failed to realise, said Salandy-Brown, was there were a lot of closet writers and readers who were keeping what they did to themselves because at the time, it was not cool to admit that they liked to read or write.
The former senior manager at the BBC had confidence in the festival even before it officially began.
“I told the team that we had to hit the ground running, and we had to show the public from the beginning what is possible. The first year, we didn’t know how many people would attend, but the public accepted the festival and it got bigger and bigger. Our aim was to create an ecosystem where people could realise their ambitions to write and then move to the next stage of becoming accomplished writers. It also presents the opportunity for emerging writers to meet and interact with established writers whose works they have always admired,” she says.
Since the festival was inaugurated, thousands of people have attended the writers’ workshops, many more people have started writing books and more Caribbean books have been published. The festival also draws international publishers.
Educating people on what
makes a good book
The prizes awarded during the festival, such as the Burt Code Award, The Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize and the One Caribbean Media-sponsored OCM Bocas Prize, have helped raised the profile of not just the writers but the festival itself.
It is the festival’s aim to also educate people on what makes a good book. Technology has made it easy for someone to become a self-published author, but in reality, it does a disservice to writers, says Salandy-Brown. Because self-published books are also self-edited, it doesn’t benefit from the input of those in the literary world whose critiques could actually lead to improvements, which could result in sales and recognition.
The NGC Bocas Lit Fest has been perceived by some as elite, maybe even highbrow, but marketing and media co-ordinator Ardene Sirjoo begs to differ. The activities during the festival are designed to cater to everyone and facilitate those interested in developing their writing skills. Some of the festival’s greatest achievements, says Sirjoo, is the development of the reading public and getting Caribbean books in schools and on the shelves at bookstores.
Without the Bocas Lit Fest, author Barbara Jenkins says she would not have had the exciting and late-life experience as a writer. Jenkins was awarded the first Hollick-Arvon Prize at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Her first novel, De Rightest Place, was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize. Jenkins says the festival afforded her intellectual stimulation and contact with international writers.
“When the Bocas Lit Fest burst upon the scene like a newly birthed gazelle, bouncing about and running, I was someone only recently tinkering with writing and could have gone on lazily doing a bit of this and that for competitions and the like, but Bocas changed that. It propelled me into the big world, giving me a reason to regard writing not as an aimless hobby but as a responsibility to be taken seriously, not just for myself but for writers and readers in the region, the diaspora and beyond,” she says.
How is it that the NGC Bocas Lit Fest has been so successful at establishing the brand so quickly? Board member Attale has a theory.
“The product was well targeted and well promoted. It includes a diverse range of interests that have appealed to a wide range of people. As a result, sponsors saw the value in it and embraced it. What Marina has managed to pack into the programme, and the calibre of persons she has attracted to the festival and the number of prizes that have been awarded have astonished me. It’s impregnated with value,” says Attale.
Despite the enormous strides made by the Bocas Lit Fest to promote Caribbean writers and literature, the NGO is under-resourced, in terms of human resources and financial backing. It will always need the benevolence of sponsors, says Attale. But Salandy-Brown and her team are forging ahead. The festival is now three days—down from five, and is expected to live up to expectations when it takes place from May 1-3. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize, will be starring at the festival.
“We find that there are a lot of people who are interested in the arts and literature, so the NGC Bocas Lit Fest is serving its purpose and will continue to do so,” says Attale.
To become a sponsor of the Bocas Lit Fest, e-mail the organising team at email@example.com.