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Our Bocas

May 24, 2013

:: by Stephen Narain ::

I’m blessed to be a child of the eighties.

I grew up in the Bahamas at a time where a Union Jack didn’t fly over my Parliament, where I wasn’t singing for God to save any queen, God bless her.  The flag to which I pledged allegiance was bold.  Aquamarine, where once was navy.  Black, where once was white.  Gold, where once was red.  The colors didn’t quite match.  They clashed, in fact.  The flag was beautiful. 

A week after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place where I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the Bahamian flag—and its Guyanese friend a continent away—I wonder if part of the role of contemporary Caribbean artists is to embrace colors that don’t quite match.  To “hold a meditation” as the Trinidadian-Bahamian poet Christian Campbell might have it, even when that meditation leads us to visions we aren’t always comfortable seeing.  To play a part in this ongoing (and never-ending) project of imagining what the Caribbean really was and is and, more importantly, in articulating a vision of what it can be.

Commissioned Bocas artwork by Wendy Nanan, Trinidadian painter.  Transmission depicts two pairs of silhouettes.  The first pair represents the Buddha transmitting knowledge of the Dharma to a Zen Master.  The second pair portrays Abraham Lincoln and “the ultimate fulfillment” of the Thirteenth Amendment—Barack Obama.  Commissioned 2013 Bocas Lit Fest artwork by Wendy Nanan, Trinidadian painter.  


In the nineties—no matter how molasses-like our dial-up services were or how often we had to yell at siblings not to pick up the phone lest we lose our connections—the introduction of the Internet created our most powerful tool in our quest for cultural reinvention.  Suddenly, the limitations on free expression so stubbornly reinforced by our outmoded curricula or by our grumpy librarians or by the Dewey Decimal system were not simply transgressed, but shattered.  With every instant message, with every Facebook friend, with every YouTube post, we were gradually breaking down borders without even knowing it.

True, like any great invention, the Internet fuels vice.  But the Internet also carries invaluable potential for restructuring our present dialogue—and for starting new ones.  As a novelist just starting out, the Internet has helped me discover the community of artists I was searching for, not simply in a Bahamian or in a Guyanese context—but in a pan-Caribbean one, as well.  The Internet created an informal, unincorporated, and adaptable West Indies Federation.  The New York-based Small Axe Project, for instance, provides a site where those at home and in the diaspora meet to negotiate the meaning of Caribbeanness, often by breaking (and blending) artistic forms.  Yet even these reformulations are constantly being contested.  The beast of the blogosphere feeds on elaboration, on clarification, on dissent.  It’s not at all rare these days to find a post written by Trinidadian journalist Lisa Allen-Agostini shared on Facebook by Jamaican critic Annie Paul retweeted by Jamaican-American academic Kelly Josephs and seen by goodness knows how many people—West Indian? British? Ghanaian?—scattered around the world.

This is all a very long preamble to some thoughts on this year’s Bocas Lit Fest, the Trinidadian literary festival fast becoming one of the region’s most important cultural events.  As I observed people at each of the festival’s sessions post this picture or Tweet this comment, I couldn’t help but think how the festival itself felt like navigating the Internet in the best possible way.

Bocas is dizzying.  Over four days, you flash from panel to reading to workshop at hyperactive speed, downloading new information, storing away bits of knowledge for future reference.  Free to the public, most of the festival’s events are open source.  Bocas isn’t a “Literary Festival,” but a “lit fest”—an important distinction.  Bocas’ refreshing lack of pretense will contribute to its growth in years to come, I predict.  My sincere hope is that, as the festival gains popularity, it doesn’t sacrifice its intimacy.  Most panels are housed in Port of Spain’s cozy Old Fire Station, connected to the city’s central library.  Readings are often accompanied by ambulance traffic and passing schoolchildren and, on Sunday mornings, Pentecostal praise music.

I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

Jamaican writers Ifeona Fulani and Olive Senior at the 2013 Bocas Lit Fest, Port of Spain, Trinidad

Jamaican writers Ifeona Fulani and Olive Senior at Bocas 

Bocas is the type of cacophonous setting that privileges independent thought.  In one session, Pankaj Mishra and Richard Drayton are differentiating between historical temporalities.  An hour later?  A young Bahamian poet Sonia Farmer—who happened to, you know?, establish her own independent printing press—sings praises to female pirates.  It’s the kind of space where Teju Cole, one of the world’s most celebrated young novelists, sits two rows behind an eleven-year-old—who likely has no idea who he is.


            Any visit to Trinidad and Tobago—a country where you’ll spot a woman walking down the street with mango-colored skin and Indian hair and Chinese eyes—is a reminder that we in the Caribbean have, to put it mildly, inherited a cultural mess.  But like Port of Spain, Bocas does not try to conceal contradiction.

This year, Bocas was selected as one of fourteen global sites forming the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC).  Two Bocas panels—“A National Literature?” and “Should Literature Be Political?”—were live-streamed to an audience worldwide.  Yet even before the panels started, one gleaned that these two questions, by their very framing, were tricks meant to engender as spirited a debate as possible.  Herein lies the quiet progressiveness of Bocas, Spanish for mouths (mouths, plural): its willingness to provoke ordered disorderliness.  During the panel “A National Literature?”, Marlon James and Irvine Welsh and Vahni Capildeo and Hannah Lowe shared a single stage.  The authors transformed into molecules given the freedom to bond.  Or not.

Edinburgh World Writer’s Conference panel  “A National Literature?”, chaired by Marina Warner and featuring writers Marlon James, Vahni Capildeo, Hannah Lowe, and Irvine Welsh.

Edinburgh World Writer’s Conference panel  “A National Literature?” at the 2013 Bocas


For a Caribbean society that has long had its rules of debate predetermined, its class hierarchies rigid, intractable, exchanges amongst such wildly different writers form our richest protest against cultural stasis.  Such exchanges work to collectively reveal our pitfalls—and our possibilities.  “A national literature,” James suggests, “reckons with how people actually speak.”  “Reckons” and “actually” are the two salient words here.  What a forum like Bocas encourages is a move away from the politeness and, frankly, the laziness that enervates many of our most critical debates.  When we remove fundamentalist Christian rhetoric from the equation and search for the truest roots of our inequalities, for example, what we are forced to rely on is our rawest critical faculties.  We realize that the two things—faith and intellect—do not exist in mutually exclusive spheres.  Neither do head and heart.  Many of the readings at Bocas—where sexual abuse is described line by line or where a white Jamaican novelist, without a hint of political correctness, meditates on her country’s relationship to shadeism—make us uncomfortable.  Writers like James and Kerry Young and Diana McCaulay—if we open ourselves up to their visions—destabilize us.  As they should.

But mark my word: Bocas is not all about reciting odes to free speech and merry multiculturalism.  In terms of the region’s publishing industry (or lack thereof), there are huge challenges the festival isn’t shy about bringing to broader public knowledge.  One issue that reverberated amongst panels concerns representation.  During the discussion “Should literature be political?”, Kei Miller’s remark about the “savviness” of the transnational Caribbean author remains with me most.  (You can read his provocative response to James’ EWWC speech here.)  Miller’s comment made me think about the degree to which claims to cosmopolitanism are often used as a convenient marketing tool by the international literary élite.  How do such works, for better or for worse, distort how Caribbean people “actually” speak in the Caribbean space?  And the question of “authenticity?”  What does that term mean exactly?  Is it even relevant?, James challenged.  Lowe raised a fantastic, meta point: why do we in the Caribbean even feel compelled, in 2013, to interrogate the nature of—and the need for—a national literature in the first place?

            So often when reading The Nassau Guardian or The Stabroek News, I come across editorials lamenting problems without providing concrete solutions.  Bocas’ openness in providing an active, rigorous forum for us to pose our knottiest questions is a clear catalyst for cultural advancement.  Bocas’ commitment to rewarding the best of the region’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, through its annual OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature—won by Derek Walcott, by Earl Lovelace, and this year by Monique Roffeybreeds a spirit of healthy competition amongst the region’s authors.  Two newly launched awards—the Hollick Arvon Prize and the Burt Award—provide unprecedented support for emerging writers and writers of young adult literature, respectively.  The Caribbean Literature Action Group (CALAG)—a joint initiative by Bocas, the Commonwealth Foundation, and the British Council—is aimed at bolstering “the infrastructure for literary publishing within the region.”  A recent op-ed by Jeremy Poynting, managing editor of Peepal Tree Press, asks how the energy created by Bocas can be channeled toward improving the literary cultures in other Caribbean countries, especially in places like Guyana where artistic freedom is often wedded to government interests.

Guyana-born, Grenada-based novelist Oonya Kempadoo with literary agent Elise Dillsworth

Guyana-born, Grenada-based novelist Oonya Kempadoo with literary agent Elise Dillsworth at Bocas

           In no small part, the success of Bocas emerges from its independent spirit, from its engagement with concerns both local and global, and from the extraordinary passion of the festival’s organizers.  The festival thrives on complexity, on a confident belief that our stories unmitigated, unadulterated are enough.

Answering a question from the audience, James, echoing Virginia Woolf, said writers need space and time—and complete artistic freedom.  Born without readily available silver spoons, we need no-strings-attached financial support.  We need fellowships.  We need residencies.

We really need to pay our rent.  (Really.)

But we’re still creative people, albeit at various stages.  And we need fuzzy things, too.  Things like faith.  And trust.  And the kind of passion drawn from the good will of the people who’ve envisioned—and executed—as generous (and generative) of a forum as Bocas.


Bio Pic - PerezStephen Narain was born in Freeport, Bahamas to Guyanese parents and moved to the United States as a teenager.  A graduate of Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is currently at work on a novel set in Guyana and a collection of linked stories set in the Bahamas.  Find him on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.

.Photographs by Paula Perez.
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