One of the mistakes outsiders make is thinking of Trinidad and Tobago as a homogenous cultural vat. T&T’s own people – the team of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest included – know better. On November 12th and 13th, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest South returned to the San Fernando Hill for its third South festival, and it couldn’t be any clearer: the towns and villages past the lighthouse are brimming with talent honed and nurtured in their own home ground.
Lance Dowrich, winner of 2016’s Caribbean arm of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, cited his San Fernando roots as a major source of inspiration. “I knew this hill when it was just gravel,” he said, referencing the historic venue after a reading from his prizewinning story, “Ethelbert and the Free Cheese”. Dowrich, who shared a fiction panel with fellow regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner (2015) Kevin Jared Hosein, was full of sage advice for aspiring writers. Writing about what you know, Dowrich said, has always stood him in good stead. The panel also included first time novelist Aliyyah Eniath, and Icacos-based writer Michael Cozier, who was shortlisted for 2016’s CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. The quartet, each at different stages in their writing careers, shared freely and forthrightly on the importance of literary agents; careful editing; enthusiasm in submission, and perhaps most encouragingly, the willingness to strike forth.
Fiction was far from the only focus of Bocas South this year. As festival foundress Marina Salandy-Brown said during the weekend, Bocas strives to bridge the seeming gaps between printed matter and other media, showing how books, films, art, dance and theatre are more closely linked than they seem. No finer evidence of this could be found than in The Oratory Foundation’s stunning Shakespeare showcase, under the direction of Deborah Jean-Baptiste-Samuel. Gaily decked out in flowing shalwars, or proudly slinging steelpan drums around their necks, the players performed scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Julius Caesar and The Tempest with a decidedly local signature.
The discussion panels at Bocas South emphasized the need for care and attention in all parts of T&T, unwittingly underscoring the value of decentralization, of not making Port of Spain the end goal for all business, commerce and culture. Visual artist Joshua Lue Chee Kong spoke during The Politics of Cultural Preservation panel, stressing the importance of framing our approach to conservation through an artistic lens. Artists and creatives are able to perceive the world through different, much-needed ways, he said, as his co-panelists Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, Akilah Jaramogi, and Francis Lovell nodded in agreement.
Judy Raymond, former editor-in-chief of the T&T Guardian, advocated the value of all stories, not only the seemingly grand ones. In her New Stories from the Past panel, in which she was accompanied by Bridget Brereton, Danielle Delon, and Valerie Taylor, Raymond shed light on the significance of writing history books – and of how those histories come from far and wide, including unexpected nooks and enclaves on the T&T map.
Certainly, Mayaro-born Michael Anthony has written a tremendous volume of work, both fiction and non-fiction, inspired by his origins in southeastern Trinidad. Anthony was on hand at Bocas South, waxing nostalgic, thoughtful and self-interrogatively on his life, writing and influence, at a special banner event in honour of his work. Salandy-Brown’s multimedia message echoed here: Anthony’s seminally beloved classic, Green Days by the River, has been adapted for the silver screen by director Michael Mooledhar, and will be released in 2017. Both Mooledhar and Anthony discussed the challenges of translating one art form into another, and were liberally plied with questions from bright-eyed schoolgirls and seasoned educators alike.
T&T has big problems, as the South Bocas Big Idea discussion, Life after Oil, made pellucid. The Life after Oil panelists — NGC’s Curtis Mohammed, AACCLA’s Nicholas Galt, and Venezuelan filmmaker Jorge Thielen Armand – strived to impart the seriousness of our economic situations without oil, and warned that the future could be dire without a marriage of investment and interest from both the public and private sector. If it seems like a conversation that doesn’t belong in a literary festival, the reverse is true. Over Bocas’ six years of operation, it is these very Big Idea talks that prove: books couldn’t be closer to the heart of everyday living.
Yet, in collaborations with valuable creative partners like Green Screen – The Environmental Film Festival, The Oratory Foundation, the NGC Sanfest and others, the prevailing message of Bocas South was far from grim. Bocas South is not about bringing culture to the San Fernando Hill: culture has been made, and has existed there, long since the inception of the festival, long since the advent of paved roads and pipe-borne water. At the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the weekend’s focus was on letting South’s own stories shine.
Blog by Shivanee Ramlochan, Photos by Marlon James.
This article originally ran under the headline “Bocas gains ground in South”, published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section, November 20th, 2016, page B39.