Over the past fifteen years the tourism industry in many of the Caribbean islands has had to diversify and seek creative ways of promoting the destination all year round, outside the seasonal peak of the winter in northern latitudes. Music and literary festivals have proliferated in a number of islands as a consequence, although often the bigger problem has been planting local roots that are sufficiently deep and strong to ensure the longevity of the initiatives. At different times over this period Jamaica and Trinidad, St. Martin, Antigua and Dominica, Montserrat, Anguilla and Barbados have held literary festivals of various descriptions, with local, regional or international profiles. I have been to a few of them, far from all, and the list is not exhaustive, but one thing I am constantly asked when I speak about literary festivals in the Caribbean is the viability and the quality of a focused, intensive and specialized event in an environment (like Anguilla or St. Martin) where the population is reduced and interest in books hardly enough to warrant the existence of more than one bookshop (if that many).
For the third year running the Anguilla Tourist Board and the Lit Fest committee organized a literary festival in an island of roughly 14,000 people. In the great scheme of things all of Anguilla put together amounts to a small village, and yet the 2014 Lit Fest was nothing short of spectacular—world class. How in the world is that possible?, you might ask. Like most things, it’s possible with hard work and dedication, passion and plain good will from all involved. First and foremost from the organizers, of course, who set the tone (which was enthusiastic), make the plans (which were intense) and keep the ball rolling regardless of the last minute difficulties they might encounter. There were some late no-shows and minor delays over the course of the weekend, but nothing substantial enough to merit mentioning—let alone dampening the party.
Secondly, and perhaps most critically, it is possible through the professional engagement and the full commitment of participants. I have been to a number of festivals, both as part of the program and as a visitor, and I have absolutely no reservations in saying that the quality of the Anguilla Lit Fest was on a par with the best fairs I have attended in the past. That this would be so became evident to me on the first day, on Thursday afternoon, when roughly fifteen presenters spoke to children of all ages from seven different schools on the island. That was the first time I saw A-dZiko Simba Gegele perform her young adult novel All Over Again, a riveting account of the emotions undergone by a teenager during his first encounters with love (and hate). It was also the first time I heard the dub poetry of Ras Takura—a Jamaican activist who enthralled the children on that occasion and the audience later on during the Friday afternoon reading session and the Saturday morning poetry lab that started the day.
A further word on the rest of the participants, who were superb without exception: Lauren Francis-Sharma’s excerpt on Friday afternoon from her debut novel, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry—a touching account of life in Trinidad in the middle of the XX century and the relationship of a young girl with her departed grandmother—was absorbing and even emotional. Bernice McFadden’s presentation about her journey from rejected writer-wannabe to respected (and profitable) author, to rejected writer-has-been to successful author was engaging, dynamic, inspiring and above all fun. But to me the highlight of the weekend came when Bob Shacochis, winner of the National Book Award and finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, delivered the only written presentation of the festival, straight after Bernice McFadden’s intervention. If McFadden’s was a perfect example of controlled spontaneity, Shacochis’ was a thoughtful masterclass read out with intent, if obviously strained in its tempo and its cadence by issues of time. Candid and thoughtful, poignant and highly relevant, Shacochis went about addressing the question of “How to become the writer you want to be”, which quickly morphed into “Why do writers write?” Because they must, was Shacochis’ final answer, “writers breathe in air and let out words,” he concluded, but not before touching upon questions of his heritage and upbringing, questions of anger and prejudice and hate that all at once added an ingredient which the night before someone had told me they had found wanting: an ounce of controversy.
Finally, and most importantly, a successful literary festival by any standards is possible in Anguilla and anywhere else in the world through the engagement and the support of the people attending. Dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of people sat through session after session listening attentively, engaging actively and providing the essential chemistry necessary for any event to work. The fact that several aspects of the literary world—from working in publishing to getting published, from the biography of Richard Williams to the epic foundation of Essence magazine—were covered certainly helped to appeal to a wide variety of interests. Similarly, the presence of local authors—from Ijanyah Christian and Linda Banks, Felix Fleming or Marcel Fahie—and guests from St. Martin also contributed to the evident enthusiasm. But to me, watching the children walking around the place collecting autographs and asking the questions they were too shy to put forward in public simply epitomized the potential of this festival.
The bottom line is that Paradise Cove (and DaVida, Ce’Blue, Cap Juluca and LaVue) was overcome for a full weekend with the sort of interaction and connection—with the sort of magic—that is only possible when a group of people with a common objective give the best of themselves willingly and wholeheartedly. If that isn’t reason enough to have a fourth Anguilla Lit Fest (and if that isn’t reason enough for you to attend it once it comes), I don’t know what it takes to convince you.
Published by The WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday June 7, 2014.