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Firing the canon at Bocas Lit Fest 2017


Trinidad’s Kaiso Blues Cafe was packed. Elbows poked ribs. Waitresses squeezed through tight spaces with loaded plates. And ears strained to hear the poets unfold their words on the small stage. This was Bocas Lit Fest on the road. Most of ‘Trinidad and Tobago’s annual celebration of books, writing and writers’ took place at the national library (NALIS) and adjacent Old Fire Station. But a few evening events, like this, had been organised to take the book beyond the four institutional walls of the library.

As well as poetry readings and music, the night included a lively conversation between two writers – Jamaican poet Kei Miller (winner of this year’s 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for fiction) and Trinidad’s own Vahni Capildeo – chaired by the UK’s Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation. Herbert began by saying that coming from the UK to Bocas felt like moving from the ‘periphery’ of Caribbean writing to the centre. She asked about the next “literary canon”. Who would be in it? Where would it be centred?

It’s a tempting idea: a literary canon made up of writers from across the Caribbean, influencing education, debate and thought around the world. And, it seems, not inconceivable. Already the publishing world is opening up. “This is a really good time to look for US representation” enthused American literary agent Barry Goldblatt. “Diversity is not a trend”. This shift, this widening, is no flash in the pan – and Bocas knows it. Little wonder there was a certain optimism and excitement in the air.

But like the colonial governors who were replaced by a new, local elite across much of the Caribbean, is putting a new face on existing structures, terminology and norms the way to go? Answering Herbert’s question, Capildeo cooly answered: no, we don’t need a new literary canon. A new empire. (I wish I had a recording of this exchange to get the wording exactly but hopefully this is coming). Rather than a pyramid, Bocas offers a web of literary connections, one that the spider writers lightly navigate – collecting juicy titbits from other places, spinning new connections and bending the rules.

In a discussion with Jennifer Rahim about her new book Curfew Chronicles, on the state of emergency declared in Trinidad in 2011, Peepal Tree Press founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting recalled a discussion the two had had during the editing process. The question: should certain words, cultural references and other details unfamiliar to, say, a UK audience be explained? The answer, in the end, was no. Perhaps times are changing. Where once Caribbean readers had to sit and imagine snowy landscapes, ripe peaches and pebbled beaches, European readers now must discover what it means to see a scarlet ibis fly overhead, bite into a double, and ‘gah lang’. 

As the focus shifts, perhaps Caribbean writers will no longer need to be compared to their Western equivalent, be it Chaucer, James Joyce, William Wordsworth or Shakespeare. As was done by some moderators at Bocas. Instead writers from all nations will be allowed to step across borders, borrow other languages, cultures, words, influences and perspectives. In his conversation with the American essayist Eliot Weinberger, Bocas programmer director Nicholas Laughlin asked about Weinberger’s term ‘post-national writer’. Despite being coined some 12 years ago, the concept remains fresh today. Questions about identity and nationalism pervaded many Bocas discussions and debates.

There’s a current desire among not only post-colonial nations but also former colonising nations to create a ‘national identity’. What does it mean to be English/American/Algerian/South African/Jamaican/Guyanese? “Our consistent desire to manifest as this one monolithic identity doesn’t make sense,” said the Kenyan journalist and writer Peter Kimani in his session. And yet, ironically, it is also that literature helps construct identity – and power. A writer reflects, distorts, challenges and lays bare a country, a people, a community. Through their words we come to understand ourselves, see where we’ve been, and where we might go next. And the stronger a country’s literary heritage, the greater its cultural reach.

When Weinberger commented, “I was a little surprised that people here still look at England as a place of valuation”, it wasn’t an easy stab to take. A member of the audience quickly stood up to say that England simply offered more of a market than the US, in her opinion. That the UK had given more platforms to Caribbean writers. To reduce this reliance, there’s a need to build up the literary infrastructure in the Caribbean. Publishing houses, editors, copy editors, production staff, publicists… “Writing is really the only thing you can do by yourself,” noted writer/editor/book developer Malaika Adero in a talk on publishing. “Everything else requires a village.”


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What UG’s new publishing imprint means for Guyana

Ian Randle hands Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith one of over one of 200 books his publishing company is donating to the University of Guyana library

Last night, the University of Guyana and Ian Randle Publishers signed an agreement to create a University of Guyana imprint – meaning UG will be able to publish books and journals under the name ‘University of Guyana Press’.

There are a lot of details to work out. Will only academic texts be published? Will it be run for profit? Will e-texts be available? How will access be ensured through affordability and distribution? What steps will be taken to tackle infringement of copyright (or even to establish copyright guidelines – are there any in Guyana?)

But these will be worked through in time. And Ian Randle, founder of the eponymous Jamaica-based publishing company, said he hopes to see the first UG publication roll off the presses by the end of 2017.

This means that finally researchers and lecturers at UG will have the opportunity to publish their works, without looking beyond their own institution or country. And old papers, theses and monographs (my new word for the day, meaning a detailed specialist study on a particular subject), consigned to the archives, will finally see the light of day.

After all, as various people pointed out at the launch, what’s the point of research if no one reads it?

Publishing is having a rough time of late. But still, books continue to hold their own against e-book readers and the internet. As Mr Randle quoted, “They’re portable, high resolution, and have a long battery life.”

Academic writing, too, is facing its own crises. As well as debates concerning open-access publishing and peer reviewing, the very role of academia is under debate.

This excellent article from The Conversation, entitled Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers  highlights the exclusivity of many researchers’ work:

…their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers. Biswas and Kirchherr estimate that an average journal article is “read completely by no more than ten people”.

The article goes on to report that some academics don’t want to feel like they’re “dumbing down” complex thinking and arguments. Since when is writing with clarity, sensitivity to your readers and energy ‘dumbing down’?

Perhaps they really mean, “I want to use big words”. Go ahead, no one is stopping you. We have dictionaries.

While he has made his name across the Caribbean publishing scholarly works, Mr Randle acknowledged that their second (I believe) bestselling book is a cookbook: Tastes Like Home by Guyanese foodie Cynthia Nelson.

I believe thinking commercially is essential. Not just to reduce the financial burden on the university and make the imprint sustainable in the long term, but to re-establish Guyana as a leading literary force.

Guyana is renowned worldwide for its fantastic writers. Edgar Mittleholzer, Jan Carew, Gaiutra Bahadur, Mark McWatt, Pauline Melville, ER Braithwaite, Sharon Maas, David Dabydeen, Grace Nichols, John Agard, Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Wordsworth McAndrew… I could go on.

And there is a whole swathe of writers who don’t achieve international fame or become household names, but quietly plug away – just for the joy of writing. Since I’ve been in Guyana I’ve met poets, short story writers, playwrights, novelists… where do they turn when they want to publish?

Some do get publishing deals, while others decide to self publish. This democratisation of publishing is welcome, but care has to be taken. Without the critical and promotional input of editors, proof-readers, production managers, marketing experts etc, quality can be jeopardised and the potential reach of works dramatically reduced.

It’s an oft-repeated adage that until the lion learns to write, stories will always glorify the hunter. In Guyana, people talk often of the search for national unity – a uniquely Guyanese identity. Is it a coincidence that the local publishing industry is so lacking? That schoolrooms and libraries are dominated by Western books glorifying the hunter?

Yes, you can go to Austin’s Bookshop and buy great contemporary and classic Guyanese books but they’re not cheap. Which gives rise to cash-strapped teachers and parents photocopying texts for their children. And in turn, takes away potential royalties for authors – making writing not a feasible career choice, except for those wealthy enough to support themselves through another means.

Imagine a Guyana where children of all backgrounds read books about Guyanese children who look and sound like them. Where students learn from textbooks written by Guyanese experts. Where data and research about Guyana is widely accessible. Where the National Library is a hive of activity every day of the week. Where Guyanese authors in the diaspora come to publish their books ‘back home’. Where critical theory is standard in the curriculum. And where books come stamped with the proud label, ‘University of Guyana Press’.

This doesn’t have to be fiction.

African arts, culture + politics

Voices in exile


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) The concept of ‘home’ can provoke feelings of displacement and guilt in many migrants. The Last Gift, a new book by Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah, explores this issue through the tale of Abbas, a migrant father struggling to hide his past from his English-born children.

Migration, post-colonialism and identity are recurring themes in Gurnah’s books. They’re also matters of personal interest; Gurnah was forced to flee Zanzibar, aged 18, after a bloody revolution in 1964. It was 17 years before Gurnah was able to return, following an amnesty. “Being away has a guilt to it: you’re out of touch, you can’t help people. Going back was terrific because you are able to renew things.”

Gurnah, professor of English at the University of Kent, now visits Zanzibar regularly. But his past is never far from his mind – or books. “I often have characters thinking back to other times. Many people who live this migrant life live both in reality and in their imagination.”

The Last Gift [Bloomsbury], out May

African arts, culture + politics

The Write Stuff: Kwani Trust


(ARISE magazine, issue 9) Nairobi’s literary scene is buzzing, and much of the excitement can be attributed to Kwani Trust – a local, literary network and publisher.

Kwani Trust began as an informal group for local writers who had returned to Kenya after years abroad and were looking for a platform to showcase their work. “We returned from Canada, the US and South Africa to find the same African Writers Series books we’d grown up reading [still] on the shelves,” recalls author and Kwani Trust managing editor Billy Kahora.
Determined to move beyond post-independence issues, the group set about championing writing that
dealt with modern issues, such as changing generations, insecurity and HIV/Aids. Their project gradually gathered steam and, in 2003, was officially launched as Kwani Trust.
Since then, the group has published journals and books, mostly by Kenyan writers. About half of the contributions are local, the rest come from across Africa and the diaspora. The Trust also holds poetry readings and a book festival. Later this month they’ll publish three books – a reissue of The Stone Hills Of Maragoli by Stanley Gazemba, Tale of Kasaya: Let Us Now Praise A Famous Woman by Eva Kasaya with Jackie Lebo and Cock Thief by Parselelo Kantai – as well as a poetry anthology. And later this year they will publish Kwani 6, a short-fiction anthology of young African writers, as well as a graphic novel and a visual, collaborative narrative of Nairobi. South Africa and Nigeria may have spearheaded the continent’s literary revolution, but in Kenya the writing’s on the page – not the wall.