Anguilla Lit Fest: A Partial Reckoning

Literature is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Anguilla. Not that there isn’t a literary tradition in the Caribbean—there is, of course there is. But still, small, provincial, peaceful Anguilla slots more easily into the categories of the mind that link her to tranquility and indeed to blue, to an idle state of contentment, to the simple delights of the simplest of lives, in short to an actual rather than a metaphoric or fanciful Paradise. Alas, literature is so often the consolation left to those who don’t—who cannot—have access to the real thing.

And yet, it should come as no surprise that, unlikely as it might seem, literature should be a big hit in Anguilla. After all, few could have envisioned this, an island where electricity and running water were a luxury until well into the seventies, to become a hotspot of the most exclusive type of high-end tourism; and who would have thought that a place with fewer than 15,000 people would end up cementing its position among the most recognized culinary destinations in the region? Where once there was a hundred-yard stretch of paved runway there is now an international airport which every year is swarmed with dozens of private jets; where once only barren shrubbery now a world-class 18-hole golf course. Indeed, that might well be the most astounding thing about Anguilla: at the end of the day, once the eyes have grown accustomed to the tropical light and the immaculate beaches no longer seem otherworldly, this island’s true surprise factor is its seemingly inexhaustible capacity to reinvent itself—Anguilla, the land where anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

Anguilla-Lit-Festival-FinalThat’s precisely what Stephanie and Reggie Oliver did some years ago, when they conceived a plan to conduct literary workshops on the island. That was the seed that eventually grew into the Anguilla Lit Fest, first held in 2012. Hosting a literary festival in a recondite corner of the Caribbean wasn’t actually so much of an original idea—Colin Channer, Kwame and Dawes and Justine Henzell had pioneered the concept in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica in the early 2000s; Lasana Sekou and the Conscious Lyrics Foundation had long established their own version of it in St. Martin; and a flurry of similar events emerged in the region round about ten years later. The challenge, however, was not so much to organize a literary festival in Anguilla (given the Olivers’ experience and connections in the publishing world that could likely be accomplished with little effort) but rather to make it stick—to create something successful enough to turn it into a regular feature of the yearly literary circuit.

After hosting five consecutive editions of the Lit Fest over the past five years, it’s fair to say the challenge, at least the first part of it, has been met. Not that it has come without its difficulties: funding has been a constant source of uncertainty since the inception of the festival, at times spilling onto the organizational aspect. Even in 2016, confirmation of the dates and indeed of the entire affair going ahead only came approximately two months before the start—clearly too late for visitors from abroad to properly plan a trip around the festival. And yet, while this is patently a serious issue, especially in a place exclusively orientated towards tourism, in the greater scheme of things it isn’t as bad as it might initially seem: from an outsider’s perspective there are three key elements that ultimately dictate whether an event such as the Lit Fest is a failure or a success—and of the three, outside visitors is firmly rooted in third place.

In contrast, far ahead and very much in first place lies the impact the festival has on the local community (and vice versa). In Anguilla specifically that impact is naturally going to be affected—though not necessarily dictated—by the influx of tourists, no question about it. But in terms of the authors, one of the most exciting things about the Anguilla Lit Fest is the hugely interactive response it has elicited on the local audience. Contrary to appearances, writers don’t normally want to be left alone in their ivory tower—and certainly not when they are part of a big popular event such as this one. Indeed, most writers like to be approached by people with questions or comments, not so much because they like to fell like a celebrity (though some might) but simply because it’s always reassuring to know that what you write is actually prompting some sort of reaction. I know for a fact, having been part of the Lit Fest twice, that the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience has been the most pleasant surprise to many authors who’d never before been to Anguilla.

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Speaking at the LitFest in 2016. Photo: Laura Montanari

As a matter of fact my greatest concern after the first few editions of the festival was precisely that it seemed unable to draw sizeable crowds—a problem, I’m sure, directly connected to the entry ticket price. To the credit of the organizers they have identified the need to introduce more flexible tariffs that enable people to enjoy parts of the festival at a lower cost. Indeed, the issue has never been the value-for-money element—no matter how you look at it the entry ticket has always represented phenomenal value. But that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of people (and this is true not only in Anguilla) are only prepared to spend so much for an event such as the Lit Fest—and all you can do about that is adapt!

For this very reason I was tremendously encouraged to see during my most recent visit to the Lit Fest in 2016 not only that attendance numbers had increased significantly but that there actually was a buzz about the festival which I had not experienced before: this told me that in Anguilla the Lit Fest had finally taken root. But there is more, because if there was certain amount of excitement about the festival in general Paul Keens-Douglas’ performances caused a veritable riot in town. That is the potential of the Anguilla Lit Fest, those the crowds the organizing committee will probably be aiming to match in future editions.

The second of the three keys to success to which I alluded above is closely connected to the impact of the festival on the local community but it concerns the level of comfort and involvement of the participants—which is often directly affected by the former. Nothing could be more damning for a fair of any type, not only literary, than its participants displaying a negative or indifferent attitude. This is something that could also happen in larger festivals, where guests might feel they have been neglected, disfavored or altogether miscast, but it is a much greater danger in less known events in rather idyllic locations such as Anguilla, where an unengaged participant could quickly fall into holiday mode. Here again the organizers of the Lit Fest have struck the right chord, for no matter how chatty or informal the atmosphere has been at the premises speakers have always conducted themselves with genuine passion.

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Thus, as the Lit Fest enters a new phase, now very much in the hands of the organizing committee, the balance of these first five years is unmistakably favorable: a remarkably high standard of excellence has been set, continuity has been established and a sense of ownership for the event finally seems to be nestling within the community at large. Clearly, much work remains to be done, notably in terms of consistently drawing larger crowds of both locals and tourists and eliminating uncertainty revolving around future editions of the event. In this respect, steps have already been taken in the right direction, with the dates for the sixth edition of the Lit Fest already announced for 2017, which comes as a great relief.

Personally, I would love to see the organizing committee moving towards a model comparable to that of Calabash in Jamaica, where entry is free for all and the entire program is subsidized through public and private funding. In my view this would guarantee larger audiences and entice areas of the community which might not feel immediately drawn to anything with the word literary in its name. I understand this alternative poses complications—not only financial, but also logistical and organizational ones—but the potential benefits of an open event of this sort in a small society such as Anguilla’s are simply mouthwatering. In any case, this is by no means the only way to move forward towards a more inclusive and prominent Lit Fest and with the opportunities afforded by the additional attention Anguilla is bound to get from the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution as well as the steady progress the festival has been achieving year after year these are simply exciting times for literature in Anguilla—an unlikely combination, perhaps, but a terribly tantalizing one.

 

 

 

This piece was commissioned by Anguilla Life for the spring 2017 issue of the magazine.

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