By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2014 Bocas Lit fest blogger
A chilly Woodbrook evening beneath the stars, in Alice Yard’s plein air art and culture space: this was the setting for a special literary event showcasing Trinidad and Tobago’s writing talent, on March 25th. This year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest is a mere four weeks away, as Bocas programme director (and Alice Yard co-director) Nicholas Laughlin observed in his opening remarks.
Five by Night, thusly named for the handful of talented T & T writers taking to the Alice Yard podium, served dual purposes: as both a pre-Bocas amuse bouche, and as part of the Diasporic Literary Archives’ programme, held in Port of Spain on March 25th-26th.
A rich, new resurgence of literary talent seems to be sweeping the Caribbean of late, Laughlin noted in his address to the audience. He emphasized the festival’s commitment to both nurturing, and providing appropriate platforms for, nascent, engaging voices in writing. It’s a welcome embarrassment of riches, Laughlin added, that much of the region’s writing stars are both born on and influenced by T & T’s terrain.
Introducing her as both a dear friend and an inspiration to up-and-coming scribes, Laughlin called Barbara Jenkins to the podium first. Jenkins, winner of a handsome assemblage of writing awards, including the inaugural Hollick Arvon Prize for emerging Caribbean writers, read from her debut collection of short stories, Sic Transit Wagon, from Peepal Tree Press. (Jenkins’ book launch of that title was one of Bocas 2013’s most vastly populated programme highlights.)
Reading “Ghost Story”, a tale of a gregarious yet criminally suspicious neighbourhood purloiner, Ghost, Jenkins’ clever turns of phrase and gentle comedic inflection were welcome openings to the night of fiction voices. “Is only good manners to have polite conversation with someone spending more time in your yard than you,” read Jenkins, detailing the neighbours’ consternated indulgence of Ghost’s produce-thieving proclivities.
Following Jenkins was last year’s joint Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner, Sharon Millar, who’s busily working on her first, much-anticipated novel. Millar treated the Alice Yard crowd to an excerpt from that work in progress, which focuses on the interior life of an archaeologist, Isabel Coelho. The excerpt also described the disappearance of a young boy, including artfully-rendered hints of how Isabel’s life and the child’s vanishing might be intertwined.
Millar’s prose shone through her understated, smoothly-paced narration, giving the listeners the appropriate headspace to digest the depth of her character animations. She described Isabel’s fascination with “the gentle excavations of old bones,” of the archaeologist’s wonderings on all the unaccounted dead. Even in this brief sharing on stage, a dense, challenging portrait of Isabel emerges, as a woman who takes note of her own private tectonic shifts after lovemaking, a woman not immune to the waters that rise within her.
Taking the median spot was Vashti Bowlah, a writer from Central Trinidad whose debut, self-published collection of short stories, Under the Peepal Tree, will be launched as part of this year’s main festival programme. Bowlah read the latter part of a story entitled “Safe House”, which explored the crumbling relationship between a devoted mother and her criminal escapee son, in dramatic and emotionally tense fashion. Reading from the mother’s perspective, Bowlah illuminated her anxious maternal torment, in being unable to reconcile her child’s peacefully sleeping countenance with the ruthless lawbreaker he had become.
Alake Pilgrim, who read in the penultimate slot, isn’t a stranger to the NGC Bocas Lit Fest: she was one of its very first New Talent Showcase readers in 2011. Pilgrim shared work from a short story called “Rain”, a lushly-depicted examination of two lost souls at different stages of their development. The story focuses first on an insouciant youth-man, whose affinity for football marks one of his life’s saving graces, for whom a leather-stitched sphere truly can represent a whole world. Pilgrim read passionately, scarcely pausing to draw breath during the story’s most ornate passages – the effect was a mesmerizing depiction of urban decay, sequestered love, and the disappointments of young paramours and old men alike.
Closing off the circle of readers, Monique Roffey expressed frank admiration to be in the literary company of four outstanding female voices in fiction. Roffey’s last novel, Archipelago (Simon & Schuster) was the winner of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Her newest novel, House of Ashes, which focuses on the events of the 1990 Trinidad coup’d’état, will be forthcoming later this year. Roffey read from the latter chapters of Archipelago, a global-warming conscious novel that tells the story of an unremarkable man’s sea voyage with his little daughter, Océan. Reading of the father-daughter team’s sighting of a rare white whale, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Roffey evoked dual senses of wonderment and fragility in the face of Nature’s grandeur. Detailing the sea’s awe-inspiring, terrifying caprices, and emphasizing the seeming indifference of the natural world to human suffering, Roffey’s excerpt reflected the ever-surprising capacity for love’s splendour on even the flimsiest of tempest-tossed barges.
Paper Based Bookshop was on hand, selling Jenkins’ and Roffey’s books, as well as several other titles that will feature prominently at Bocas 2014. These five outstanding writers, Laughlin commented in his closing remarks, are an indicative representation of the remarkable work being written, in Trinidad, across the Caribbean and in all its diasporic corridors.
As #bocas2014 rushes ever closer, we look forward to the panoply of readings, discussions, panels and good bookish fanfare that every final weekend in April prompts, beneath the NGC Bocas Lit Fest banners.
All photographs taken by Kathleen Tompsett, Programme Assistant, Bocas Lit Fest.