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Notes from Norwich

NGC Bocas Lit Fest programme director Nicholas Laughlin recently participated in the Norwich Showcase, an “international platform for British writing and literature development” co-hosted by the British Council and Writers’ Centre Norwich. He describes the highlights of this five-day event, bringing together British and international literary professionals for a packed schedule of readings, discussions, and informal conversations, aimed at instigating new ideas and collaborations.

It was reassuring to realise I wasn’t the only delegate at the Norwich Showcase in a state of mild panic over impending deadlines. Another festival organiser, when we were introduced on the first day, was hunched over her iPad, proofreading a press release. Others were — openly or furtively — using devices of all kinds to answer questions from colleagues back at home, relay instructions, negotiate with authors, approve artwork, and the thousand and one other tasks involved in running a literary project. (I myself spent ample hours in my room on the University of East Anglia campus tightening the nuts and bolts of the 2012 Bocas programme — to be announced tomorrow.) This buzz of electronic activity was a constant reminder that although the Showcase was intensely pleasurable, it was also hard work — in the best way.

The international delegates — representing nineteen different countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe — were there for two basic reasons. First, to be introduced to dozens of Britain’s best contemporary writers, many of them rising stars early in their careers. The reading and discussion programme featured poets, novelists, biographers, writers on nature and travel and family and history (and family history), and literary translators, making a carefully curated cross-section of 21st-century Britain’s literary diversity. Second, we were there for five intense days of meetings with colleagues from all parts of the literary profession: publishers, editors, festival organisers, administrators of innovative programmes to encourage reading and writing, agents, reviewers — and many who fill several of those roles. The simple idea was that by throwing us together in close quarters — and including ample opportunity for informal conversation over meals, cups of coffee, and occasional stronger beverages — all sorts of intellectual cross-fertilisations would ensue, and new international collaborations would germinate.

The NGC Bocas Lit Fest is quite a young literary festival, launched just last year. So it was specially fascinating to meet people from other, longer-running festivals in half a dozen countries, discover how our experiences are and are not similar, and talk about the fine points of running events of this kind: putting together a programme, engaging an audience, finding funds, and (ahem!) the intricacies of dealing with writers. And of the parade of writers and speakers, I was thrilled there were two who’ll be at the 2012 Bocas Lit Fest: the Jamaican poet and novelist Kei Miller, and Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey. A week ago I was chatting with them among the rabbits and daffodils of Norwich, and soon I’ll see them again in Port of Spain.

Norwich was an ideal location for all this: a lively and picturesque small city, easy to traverse on foot, and replete with cafés, pubs, and bookshops offering stimulants for body and mind. It was the home of two of my favourite writers, centuries apart: Thomas Browne and W.G. Sebald. It’s also the home of UEA, the Showcase headquarters, which boasts the UK’s most celebrated creative writing programme and, for good measure, the British Centre for Literary Translation. Most pertinently, it’s the home of Writers’ Centre Norwich, which describes itself as a literature development agency, but is clearly much more. The brilliant (and apparently unflappable) WCN team have helped make Norwich a key location on the international literary map, and they are a model for some of the long-term programmes the Bocas Lit Fest has planned for Port of Spain.

Finally, the Showcase offered a chance to get to know some key members of the British Council’s (equally unflappable) literature team, and better understand the depth of their experience and the breadth of their international programmes. The British Council is partnering with Bocas and Commonwealth Writers to launch the Caribbean Literature Action Group, an important new initiative to support writing and publishing in the region. It’s a very tangible vote of confidence in the vitality and potential of Caribbean literature. I know my own contribution to the inaugural CALAG meeting next month will be substantially enriched by the ideas and energy of the Norwich Showcase.

There were so many ideas bouncing about — so many fascinating people and conversations, so many debates and jokes, so much to read and listen to, so many cups of coffee and those other, stronger beverages — that the five days of the Norwich Showcase felt like fifteen. By the end, the collective exhaustion of all of us delegates must have been immense. But I imagine our collective sense of inspiration was even bigger.