Every summer during the first week of June St. Martin welcomes international writers to its shores and the small spec of land on the northeast Caribbean becomes a hub of multicultural thought at least for one weekend. The St. Martin Book Fair has been going on for twelve years running and as such is the second oldest literary festival in the region, only behind Jamaica’s Calabash which was first held in 2001. Spanning the weekend of June 5-7, the fair this year paired writers from the region together with participants from distant and diverse backgrounds to think and talk about the festival’s classic teaser theme: “Crime and Punishment.”
Unlike Calabash or any other literary get together I know, the St. Martin Book Fair does not take place in a single venue but rather shifts constantly across the island, encompassing both the French and Dutch sides. This particularity is clearly made possible by the size of St. Martin but it remains a poignant and significant message, a reminder, as it were, dropped less than subtly by the organizers of the event, Conscious Lyrics Foundation and House of Nehesi Publishers, of the potential and desirability of a unified island-nation.
Aside from political gestures, the fact that the book fair takes place in several different venues, none of which are within the grounds of the host hotel (on this occasion Divi Little Bay), entails a huge organizational burden that more often than not derived on events starting late. So much, however, was taken from granted from the start as Shujah Reiph, host of Conscious Lyrics on SOS Radio, greeted this year’s batch of writers at the Office de Tourisme in Marigot on the evening of Wednesday June 4thwith words that amounted to something along these lines: “over the course of the weekend difficulties will arise: your driver might be late, you might encounter too much traffic, we might not make it in time or someone might lose their flight. Don’t worry, these things happen. Just be patient and please, above all, enjoy the fair.”
Shujah’s words turned out to be prophetic, or maybe he knew something in advance that most of us didn’t, because Francis Buk, the South Sudanese activist who was to headline the festival did indeed miss his flight and was forced to cancel altogether. Perhaps spurred by Shujah’s advice, or more likely just because of the outstanding quality of the participants, things panned out perfectly fine in the end, with suspense novelist Gillian Royes speaking in place of Mr. Buk in the opening ceremony and focusing on crime in the islands as a major challenge in the development of the region. Bizarrely, although ultimately also successfully, such ceremony was held at Juliana airport, and also featured Max Rippon beautifully performing a poem in kweyol about his native Marie Galante followed by a spontaneous rendition in English by Dorbene O’Marde that was so touching I choose to think of it in my mind as a simultaneous translation, even though O’Marde himself has dismissed my claims as pure fantasy.
Another collateral result of the many venues in which the festival takes place is that the busy schedule quickly becomes busier when you factor in commute time and—especially—traffic. Meeting sessions in the morning followed by the general sessions in the afternoon and the evening readings often meant that the turnaround time at the hotel became prohibitively short. The flip side of that coin, though, was that the time spent in the shuttle was probably the only time the writers had available to share with one another: without that I wouldn’t have learnt of Garret Hongo’s phobias nor suffered his goading, I wouldn’t have learnt of Simon Hendrickson-Jones and O’Marde’s enthusiasm for calypso and I wouldn’t have teased Loretta Collins Klobah about her daughter Wenmi’s laugh. What’s more, without that time I wouldn’t have had the chance to share with the local volunteers who drove and escorted us from venue to venue: in my case specifically, Odele, Azaria, Merlyn and Conneir were devoted, insightful and above all fun to be with for three full days and without them my experience of the book fair wouldn’t have been as rich or enjoyable.
The practicalities of location aside, there is another highly distinctive element in the St. Martin Book Fair which clearly sets it apart from other similar events in the region: during the general sessions of Friday and Saturday at the university in Philipsburg simultaneous events take place in different classrooms, forcing visitors to make a choice. Consequently the groups of people taking part in the workshops are drastically reduced, encouraging close interaction between the small audiences (only seven or eight people) and the authors. On the one hand, I would have liked to have had the chance to hear what Gillian Royes had to say about social issues in the Caribbean or to witness Loretta Collins Klobah’s poetry workshop, but as it was I fully appreciated the opportunity to engage in a dynamic conversation with the audience in my workshop and to establish detailed connections in behavioral patterns in Hawaiian and Caribbean societies through Garret Hongo’s presentation.
Unique is a word that all too often is overused, and perhaps the St. Martin Book Fair is not alone in its kind but it certainly stands out from the crowd. It can be quirky at times, to be sure, but throughout it proved to be highly stimulating—and that can only be a good thing! From the perspective of a participant I would have to guess that the most enjoyable moment for the people of St. Martin was the closing ceremony with the presentation of Rhoda Arrindell’s book on the island’s language and identity and the intervention of a number of local artists who stirred the room. Having said that, the evening readings sailing round (and round and round) Simpson Bay lagoon under the full moon (and a timely shower) was quaint and seductive.
In particular, I enjoyed sharing a few margaritas on the beach badmouthing Nobel Prize winners with Turkish journalist and novelist Ece Temelkuran (though that was offstage) and taking part in a panel with her and Martinican poet and rapper Steve Gadet, who gave the children the most encouraging words of advice: read so you can better understand yourselves. Nevertheless, the undisputed highlight of the weekend came on Friday morning when Shujah and Conneir took me to Pointe Blanche prison to speak to some of the inmates—as sobering an experience as I have ever had. They proved highly inquisitive and fully focused, understandably suspicious about our motives to be there and also understandably insecure about their ability to write something of value to world outside—a feeling that every writer will have experienced. Which brings me back to the theme of the 2014 St. Martin Book Fair: “Crime and Punishment” worked as a teaser to lead the conversation in the direction of social issues in the islands and the question of reparation at large, but I want to dwell for a moment on a quote from Dostoyevsky’s classic: “If you push a man away you’ll never set him on the right path.”
The most remarkable thing about the St. Martin Book Fair is its inclusiveness, not only in terms of the origin of all its participants (over the years there have been panelists from all over the world) but of the entire initiative. The event is clearly aimed at the local population at large, it embraces the multiplicity of Caribbean heritage, the complexity of multicultural relations and the parallels in seemingly dissimilar circumstances. It embraces all these elements in a conscious effort to conceptualize and bring about a better, more inclusive society. The St. Martin Book Fair is a real and palpable effort to carry out—not just talk about—actions that lead to a better future, a future where we can listen to one another not only before but instead of passing judgment, a future in which we can live peacefully and harmoniously together. In this respect what the organizers of the St. Martin Book Fair want for the island is not too far distanced from what most of us want for the world—except in St. Martin this seems like an achievable goal rather than a distant dream. To this end I want to sign off with one final quote from Crime and Punishment:
“To be quite honest, if one goes into all the ins and outs of everyone, are there really going to be all that many good people left?”
That’s worth a thought, isn’t it?
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday July 19, 2014.