The mission is bigger than any one person.
Marina Salandy-Brown has employed that self-sacrificial task-focused approach to successfully create the most influential modern literary movement in the Caribbean: the Bocas Lit Fest.
In 11 short years Salandy-Brown, as founder and president of the Bocas Lit Fest, has brought together the best and brightest of Caribbean literature for the annual celebration, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, sparking a literary renaissance of sorts in the region.
On the brink of putting the cap on her planning pen and turning the festival’s next leaf over to its newly appointed festival director Nicholas Laughlin, the irrepressible Salandy-Brown sat with the Kitcharee to explore its backstory and stir its thickening plot.
“It’s truly inspirational what we have been able to achieve,” the diminutive administrator started during a WhatsApp call in the early hours of Friday morning.
A former BBC journalist, Salandy-Brown started the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in 2010 after recognising there was no universal space for Caribbean writers to meet and share ideas. The notion of the Caribbean writer in Britain became limited to the children of Caribbean-born immigrants living in the UK, she explained, while Caribbean literature originating directly from the islands had all but disappeared.
“When I came back to Trinidad in 2004, I went to an event in Grenada where a host of Caribbean writers had fetched up. When I saw there was all these writers, reading great works, I realised there was something missing. I asked them where and when do you guys come together like this and they said they never do. I knew something was missing,” Salandy-Brown revealed.
The Caribbean thrived as a literary hub while under colonial rule producing two Nobel Laureates for literature in St Lucia’s Derek Walcott (1992) and T&T’s VS Naipaul (2001).
Independent T&T’s rejection of a colonial way of life in its march towards forming a new national identity and culture meant literature was inadvertently sidelined, Salandy-Brown said. A fact further underlined by the retorts of “Trinis don’t read” she received when initially sharing her idea for the Bocas Lit Fest.
“I think in the act of the creation of a national culture we had to exclude certain things, but I think it went too far. Yes, we had to make Carnival and steel pan part of our culture, but we also threw away a lot of things we thought were too colonial like ballet. Still, the idea that Trinidadians and Tobagonians weren’t writing, and reading was erroneous. We are storytellers, just look at our calypso,” Salandy-Brown said.
In just over a decade Bocas Lit Fest not only put Caribbean literature back on the world map, but it also cleared a pathway for the Caribbean female voice to be heard, she added.
“Now our Caribbean writers are winning prizes and that’s not to say we need to be judged by others, but it shows we have stories to tell. Also, in the heyday of Caribbean literature it was all male writers. Most significantly the Caribbean female voice is now part of world culture.
It wasn’t easy, Salandy-Brown admits. Establishing a successful Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) requires a very specific set of organisational skills. And a whole lot of humility.
“The thing about it is you have to ask yourself: ‘how do you turn your good idea with all its good intentions into something that is enduring?’ You need to make it bigger than the person that wants to do it. And then you get a group of people who also want to do it. Once you get other people involved you have to recognise you no longer own it or control it. You need to let things fly,” she said.
Making literature cool again
The single greatest achievement of the Bocas Lit Fest has been making reading and writing relevant activities for a hyper-tech-social-media-blogging generation. Achieving that feat required a holistic approach to the gathering and promotion of the region’s literary talent, she revealed.
“We made literature cool,” Salandy-Brown said as if only just coming to the realisation.
“We didn’t just try to do this in Trinidad and Tobago. In the world they don’t see Jamaica, Grenadian, Barbadian or Trinidadian literature they see Caribbean lit. It was clear we had to work with all writers of the Caribbean,” she explained.
“I now see young people writing. Some of the young people I see being very successful couldn’t do so without the influence of Bocas. The effect we are having is beyond the writing and reading, its how we’ve been able to affect the fabric of what people can do. We’ve done a lot of work in schools.
Its multi layered... what you see is the tip of the iceberg,” she continued.
Nicholas Laughlin has worked alongside Salandy-Brown since the inception of the festival. A published poet and editor of the Caribbean Beat magazine, Laughlin spearhead the festival’s transition to an all-virtual platform during the Covid-19 pandemic forced restrictions on gatherings in 2020 and 2021.
While the pandemic means the future remains uncertain, Laughlin is sure the NGC Bocas Lit Festival must continue its evolution towards becoming a hybrid event.
“We have been going through a period of enormous change. We were set up to be an in-person event and suddenly, we had to do things virtually. We must continue to imagine what a hybrid festival might be with all the opportunities and challenges. It also means the audience is no longer bound by geography. Dozens and dozens of people around the world can now open their laptop and be a part of Bocas Lit,” he said.
Passing the flaming pen
Salandy-Brown, meanwhile, says she is “more than happy” to pass the executive and managerial responsibility to chief executive officer (CEO) Jean Claude Cournand and creative leadership festival director Laughlin. Salandy Brown will, however, retain the position of president of the organisation.
“I am longing to let go the reins. The fact is I have already let go the reins, everything I’ve known to do, I’ve shared. My management style is to work with the best people, give them all the tools they need to succeed and let go of the reins. I’ve worked with some terrific young people, they have all the knowledge now let’s see what they do,” she said.
Laughlin said his mandate as festival director will be to uphold the principles of Bocas Lit Fest: to be a festival for everyone, to remain truly Caribbean focused and to support and develop emerging literary talent.
“The last ten years has been an exciting time in Caribbean literature. The most gratifying thing has been seeing people who were cautious, private writers, develop, publish books, win prizes and publish more works. We very much want to continue producing a festival that is for everybody. Not forgetting our young readers, we have to discover what they want and need and give it to them, so that they not only learn from us, but we learn from them,” Laughlin concluded.