Writers and book lovers from the Caribbean and the Diaspora have a literary treat to look forward to come April – the Bocas Lit Fest. Scheduled for April 28 – May 1, in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, the event is the first major literary festival with a Caribbean focus and an international scope to be held in the twin-island Republic and the southern Caribbean. All indications are it promises to be a grand affair with an eclectic mix of creative offerings that are sure to appeal to literature fans from all over the world.
The main venue and the centre of all the action will be the National Library – a downtown Port of Spain landmark located in the heart of the capital – and the adjoining Old Fire Station, a heritage building that was once home to the celebrated Trinidad Theatre Workshop. This puts the main events just a stone’s throw from all the downtown buzz and action and, according to the organizers, the activities will be “plugged into the urban energy of Port of Spain” with some performances opening right onto the street. There’ll also be satellite events in other parts of the city, including a Friday-night poetry crawl. A series of outreach events are also planned for every weekend in April at nine other venues around T&T, including one in Scarborough, Tobago.
The festival is expected to attract a range of authors – from up-and-coming newbies to celebrated veterans – who will be reading from their work and participating in discussions and workshops.
The event’s name says as much about its creators’ intent as it does about the venue. Boca is the Spanish word for mouth. The Bocas del Dragón (the Dragon’s Mouths) are the narrow straits off Trinidad’s northwest peninsula, which connect the Gulf of Paria – a sheltered inland sea between Trinidad and the east coast of Venezuela – to the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic ocean. “The Bocas Lit Fest invites readers from around the world to enter through the Dragon’s Mouths and celebrate with us the rich literary heritage of Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean,” says the event’s organizing team, underscoring the fact that Trinidad – a vibrant multicultural and multiethnic melting pot, and the birthplace of many of the Caribbean’s leading writers – has long served as a literary and economic hub for both the larger and smaller islands of the Caribbean, as well as a link to South America.
Nicholas Laughlin, editor of the Caribbean Review of Books and a director of the contemporary art space Alice Yard, is a member of the Bocas Lit Fest organizing team. It comprises of 10 members drawn from the arts, the book trade and the media, and Caribbean academia.
“The organising team includes people from every area of what you could call the literary ecosystem: writing, publishing, bookselling, the media, the academy,” says Laughlin. “And of course we’re all avid readers. We know that in the broadest sense “literature” is not just a body of written work, but all the mechanisms and institutions that make writing and reading possible. It’s not as simple as book-publisher-bookshop-reader. A developed literary ecosystem also needs an education system that produces active readers, magazines and journals that review books, awards and grants to support writers, workshops and residencies to help them shape their talent, experienced agents and editors – and events that bring writers into more immediate proximity to their readers, like literary festivals.”
He added: “Here in Trinidad, we’ve had several literature or book festivals or fairs over the years, and individual institutions – like the University of the West Indies and a couple of bookshops – also stage reading series. There’s clearly an audience for well-curated and organised literary events. We simply decided it was time to do something on a more ambitious scale. Why not?”
The centrepiece of the festival will be the award ceremony for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, a major new award for Caribbean writers of poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction. It will be awarded for the first time this year. Book entries are to be judged in three categories: poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction. The prize includes an award of US$10,000, sponsored by One Caribbean Media, the largest and most diversified media organisation in the Caribbean with businesses in newspapers, radio, TV and Internet and New Media.
It has long been a sore point for the region’s writers that there has never been an indigenous Caribbean literary award of genuinely international scope organised and judged by Caribbean people, even as literary prizes have abounded in other parts of the world. The OCM Bocas Prize appears to be a clear attempt to address this troubling anomaly.
“There’s been talk of the need for a major Caribbean literary prize for decades,” says Laughlin. “Books by Caribbean writers win (or are shortlisted for) international prizes regularly, and there’s a large pool of writers, academics, and critics who have served as judges. Excellent books are written and published each year, there is excellent administrative and critical expertise at hand. What we’ve now finally managed is to find the last piece of the puzzle, a generous sponsor – One Caribbean Media – who understands why the prize is an important investment in Caribbean intellectual life.”
Approximately 60 books were entered for the OCM Bocas Prize, from both established and debut writers based all over the world and representing thirteen Caribbean territories. The judges are now busy working their way through the entries with the aim of narrowing them down to a longlist of nine books (three from each genre category) scheduled to be announced at the end of February.
With the cancellation of the Jamaica-based Calabash Literary Festival this year, news of which saddened the Caribbean’s literary community, the Bocas Lit Fest could not have come at a better time. Laughlin is upbeat about the festival’s potential for success, even as he’s hopeful that Calabash will be revived in the near future.
“It’s a sad twist that regional interest in the Bocas Lit Fest has been boosted by recent news of the cancellation of the Calabash Literary Festival. What we’re planning to do at Bocas is quite different from the Calabash model, and we’d expected that the two festivals, at opposite ends of the Caribbean, would complement each other in all sorts of interesting ways. Perhaps that will still happen if Calabash returns in some other form in the future. But, meanwhile, we’ve had an enthusiastic response from the writers we’ve invited to Bocas, and we fully expect that, after news from the inaugural festival spreads across the region, there’ll be even more enthusiasm about Bocas 2012.”
Laughlin says the Bocas Lit Fest is a vote of confidence in the future of Caribbean writing and the literary potential of the region’s writers.
“The Bocas Lit Fest is very much a long-term initiative, and so is the OCM Bocas Prize. We’re very focused on the 2011 programme right now, of course, but we already have lots of ideas for 2012 and beyond, and we don’t imagine any shortage of remarkable new writers and books. There’s a whole generation of emerging Caribbean writers, many of them educated and living in the wider world, whose work we’re looking forward to exploring and supporting. And I’d also describe the festival as a vote of commitment. If we want the Caribbean to produce vibrant, accomplished, searching literature that helps us understand and imagine ourselves and our future, we need to build the mechanisms and institutions that will make it possible,” he added.