Jarrel De Matas

The NGC Bocas Literary Festival is back. From May 1 to 5, the literary centre of Port of Spain, NALIS (corner of Harts and Abercromby Streets), and the Old Fire Station Building, will be the site of our annual celebration of writers, films, and of course books. Each year the festival outgrows its previous edition. This year it promises to be even bigger and better than before.

Last year, my column on the festival focused on the economic side of things; that is, how can we refine the event in an attempt to help diversify T&T’s tourism product. In this article I want to dial things back and explore the range of benefits it brings.

You see, at its core the Bocas Lit Fest is more than just about books. Rather, it is a testament to literacy and to the sustained literary and socio-cultural development of the country. The festival provides a unique opportunity for readers to interact with their favourite writers. It also enables the exchange of ideas through its panel discussions and writers’ workshops.

As developments in technology present challenges to traditional methods of book publishing, festivals such as the Bocas Lit Fest become even more important. They ensure the interpersonal experience of appreciating literature continues. Through a wide array of readings, workshops, panel discussions, performances and film screenings, the festival attempts to promote the literary wealth of the Caribbean and thereby enhance our presence in the world.

Headlining the impressive cast of writers is our very own Earl Lovelace. As one of the very few major writers who never left Trinidad and Tobago, Lovelace’s writing is grounded in exploring issues related to the homeland. His unique style interweaves Standard English and Trinidadian Creole to explore community and societal change. Trinidad-born, UK-based writer, Claire Adam, who recently appeared on the US TV show “Late Night with Seth Meyers” to discuss her debut novel Golden Child, is also one of the featured writers. If that isn’t enough, Jamaican novelist Marlon James is also here. The inclusion of James, the 2015 winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, on the Lit Fest roster, serves to validate the significance of the festival to the country, the region, and the world.

Apart from already established writers like Lovelace and James, emerging voices from the Caribbean are also given a platform to express their creativity.

Most of the events on day one of the festival were dedicated to showcasing budding authors. This is a crucial aspect of one of the aims of the festival, which is to facilitate the development of Caribbean literature.

The festival administers major regional writing prizes such as the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature which are intended to motivate and reward aspiring writers. The awards provide valuable insight into the direction that new writers are taking as they explore the different dimensions of our multi-layered Caribbean identity.

In addition to the array of activities scheduled for the five-day festival, there are also the satellite events such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Conversation, the Bocas Prize ceremony, and the much-anticipated First Citizens National Poetry Slam Final. The Poetry Slam brings the Bocas Lit Fest activities to an end with T&T’s poets competing for top honours.

Another of its satellite events, now in its fourth edition, is Backchat – a night of readings bringing together writers from across the Caribbean whose works focus exclusively on LGBT issues. Backchat is an example of the developing socio-cultural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago. It has gained in significance after the historic 2018 ruling which declared Sections 13 & 16 of the Sexual Offences Act unconstitutional.

As our nation’s literature increasingly reflects the legal developments relating to LGBT rights, now more than ever is a platform necessary for the voicing of LGBT concerns. The Bocas Lit Fest has provided that platform.

Through a variety of activities the festival provides more than a celebration of writers and their readers. It is a meeting ground for a communal appreciation of national literacy. Intellectual or casual reader, young or old, seasoned or budding writer, the Bocas Lit Fest has something to offer everyone.

— Jarrel De Matas is a teacher who has a master’s degree in literature

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