The 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest – A Blogger’s Logbook [Day Two]

Those who weren’t involved in the second day of Bocas activities this year, but were in Port of Spain as afternoon dripped into evening, will likely remember it as “that time it rained semi-profusely, and Town flooded”. (My friend and colleague Kevin Hosein blogged briefly about Bocas, and more indepthly about the extreme floodiness of the day, over at his Tumblog, Little Jumbie.) Admittedly, the gushing grey rivers of drainwater looping around the traffic-clogged roads prompted minor alterations to the Bocas schedule’s last few events of the day, since a handful of scheduled panelists were trapped within their hotels, unable to reach the National Library for neither love nor pirogue access.

Despite this, Day Two of #bocas2013 was as engaging and imaginatively challenging as Day One. The Bocas team donned their (mostly metaphorical) galoshes and steered the festival participants and attendees through the evening’s dampness — if you were already at the Library by the time the rains hit, I’ll wager it was one of the few places in Town where the spirits were enthusiastically treading water and clamouring for more words.

Here’s my Blogger’s Logbook, Day Two. Click on the summary titles in bold to go to the full posts on the official Bocas website!

One on One – Marina Warner

Marina Warner responds to a question from the audience, during her panel.
Marina Warner responds to a question from the audience, during her panel.

Writer and mythographer, Marina Warner, in conversation with novelist Lawrence Scott (author of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize longlisted Light Falling on Bamboo.) Warner spoke principally of her seminal, recently reissued work, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, as well as her 2011 book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights.

New Talent Showcase – Sonia Farmer

Sonia Farmer, with Loretta Collins Klobah's 2012 OCM Bocas Poetry prizewinning collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman.
Sonia Farmer, with Loretta Collins Klobah’s 2012 OCM Bocas Poetry prizewinning collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman.

The second of this year’s New Talent Showcase readers, Bahamian poet and publisher Sonia Farmer shared selections of her writing. She also displayed stunning handcrafted and letterpressed titles released by her small press, Poinciana Paper Press.

One on One with Olive Senior

Olive Senior addresses her rapt audience during her One on One session.
Olive Senior addresses her rapt audience during her One on One session.

The veteran Jamaican writer held court — if you were there, and witnessed not a solitary free seat to be acquired, you know what I mean! — on her poetry; on the experience of writing a novel later on in her life; on inspiration and advice for young writers, and many other gems, in conversation with Michael Bucknor.

One on One – Irvine Welsh

Scottish author Irvine Welsh, engaging with a question at the Bocas Lit Fest.
Scottish author Irvine Welsh, engaging with a question at the Bocas Lit Fest.

The author of Trainspotting; Skagboys and several other novels; short fiction collections and plays, talked with BC Pires about the “spectacularity” of failure and the ways in which the publishing world has evolved — not necessarily wholly for the better. (Also, kudos were given to Margaret Thatcher.)

Next up – Day Three of the Blogger’s Logbook!

Previous entries:
Blogger’s Logbook, Day One.

All photographs by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.

The 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest – A Blogger’s Logbook [Day One]

For the first time this week, when I woke up this morning I didn’t feel compelled to race into Port of Spain with my notebook at the ready and a blue Staff Badge slung around my neck. Goodness, I thought, it’s over. This year’s Bocas is actually over. 

Anyone who’s been behind the scenes at a literary festival can likely understand my simultaneous physical and mental exhaustion-elation combo. The Bocas Lit Fest continues to be a whirling dervish of an institution, picking up momentum and reach with each passing year. This was the festival’s third, and I’m thrilled to have reprised my role as Festival Blogger and Social Media Coordinator, which means I spent each of the four festival days (April 25th to 28th) mad-enthusiastically livetweeting and liveFacebooking. Now that the literary dust is beginning to settle, I’ve begun my comprehensive post-festival blog coverage. Today was Blogger’s Logbook Day One! Here’s a tidy breakdown of what I covered — click on the summary titles in bold to go to the full posts on the official Bocas website!

Festival Welcome – Writers vs. Politicians

Festival foundress Marina Salandy-Brown gives the official Festival Welcome address!

This was the festival’s first official event, which served to set the tone for one of our Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference panels on Day Three, titled “Should Literature be Political?” (more of that on Day Three’s coverage!). Four local luminaries read excerpts from politically-charged passages of fiction, written by four Caribbean authors.

Father Figures – Colin Grant and Hannah Lowe

Poet Hannah Lowe reads from her collection, Chick.

A panel of poetry and memoir, featuring the work of Hannah Lowe and Colin Grant, both writing about their Jamaican-British fathers, as well as the complicatedness of family life and the experience of enacting remembrance through writing.

New Talent Showcase – Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné reads a selection of her prizewinning poems.
Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné reads a selection of her prizewinning poems.

Each year, Bocas selects three emerging writers of great promise who are close to completing their first manuscript of work. This year, Trinidadian poet (and my friend) Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné was the first to be featured. I wax lyrical and occasionally mushy in my blog post, so to hear me gush over her brilliant and heartstopping verse, go there!

Fiction – Courttia Newland and Ifeona Fulani

Courttia Newland, author of The Gospel According to Cane, responds to a question.
Courttia Newland, author of The Gospel According to Cane, responds to a question.

Two fiction writers, Courttia Newland and Ifeona Fulani, read from their newly released books and discuss technique; form and dialogue use in their own narratives, as well as in the stories of others.

Join me tomorrow, as I wrap up Day One’s blogs, and cover a cross-section of panels, readings and events from Day Two!

All photographs by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.

Talking with Lisa Allen-Agostini about The Allen Prize for Young Writers

Lisa Allen-Agostini. Photo: Richard Acosta

I tell her I’ve been writing since I was 11. A strange thing happens to me when Lisa Allen-Agostini then puts this pointed, precise question to me during our mid-Bocas Festival conversation:

“How did you feel, at 11, as a young writer, beginning to discover your own voice?”

The truth? It was as terrifying as it was liberating. I realized, with the retroactive shock of absolute clarity, of just how isolated I was in my pre-adolescent writing world, of how much I longed, without even articulating it specifically to myself, of someone to let me know: what you’re doing is valid. It isn’t a waste of time. Thankfully, I had my mother’s incredible support in my writing life, as the years went by, but nothing compensates for that 11 year old girl’s absolute uncertainty, her silent, shy worries. I had my mother, and Lisa’s children have her, but we both acknowledge grimly: thousands upon thousands of our nation’s budding writers have had, for so long, no one… and this is the void that The Allen Prize for Young Writers seeks to fill.

“There was no guesswork over my writing ambitions”, Lisa tells me… just as much as there’s been no guesswork about her commitment to furthering the hopes and dreams of young authors and poets. Her love of children’s books has stood her in good stead throughout her life; it didn’t taper off when she became an adult. It’s important to remember the distinction, too, between writing for children, and writing by children, she reminds me. I’ve got to nod in recognition of this, as I know that the latter category often faces severe ordeals in being legitimized, to say nothing of published. This is why initiatives like the well-stocked NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s Children’s Programme bring Lisa joy – because they help mark a clear path forward. The fact that the 16-story collection, Children’s Stories from the Bocas Lit Fest 2011, is available for purchase nationwide: this is significant, too, but how much notice does it receive in our local media? How many good stories do we tell about young people reading and writing, and seeking to script out a future from their passion for literature and storytelling?

Lisa and the winning Allen Prize writers of 2011, at the awards ceremony on the 29th.

The galvanizing moment in Lisa’s writing career came when she won Clico’s annual Put it in Poetry Competition for secondary school students. (Sadly, the prize is no longer active.) The win signalled to her the beginning of infinite possibilities she could imagine for herself and her work. It’s that strength of imagination she hopes to share with The Allen Prize program participants. The foundation is about much more than the bestowing of a cash prize, though that’s one of its highlights. It hosts annual, intensive workshops with established writers in mentorship roles, as well as three seminars yearly, which address multiple aspects of a young writer’s craft, process and everyday concerns. As telling testimony to the practicalities of the program, The Allen Prize also guides and facilitates the potential publication, staging and transmission of participants’ completed works, enabling fresh, promising talent to forge significant relationships that can well last a lifetime.

Lisa and I discuss the worrying dearth of regional young adult fiction, a bemusing irony when one considers the vast popularity of that particular genre in worldwide publishing. We chuckle irreverently over what, to us, seems like the lacklustre presentation (though we use much meaner terms to describe it!) of Caribbean literature in most Trinidadian bookshops (with the notable exception of a special few, such as Joan Dayal’s Paper Based Bookshop at The Normandie). Frankly, Lisa’s tired of Caribbean literature getting the short end of the stick… within the Caribbean, no less, and what gets her hackles up is the underrepresentation paid to young writers in particular. All the better, then, that one of the festival highlights this year celebrated The Allen Prize for Young Writers, rewarding the talent and ambition of our upcoming who’s who in all things local and literary. Held on the last day of full festival activities, the event was a well-attended, inspiring success, and will hopefully serve to draw even more reluctant young writers out from beneath their sequestered stairwells, showing them – look, it’s okay to fully and unapologetically embrace your dreams.

“When I get an idea, an idea worth pursuing, you can be certain that I’ll follow it,” Lisa smiles, and I think I speak for most people when I say that Trinidad and Tobago is the better for Lisa’s unflinching persistence, her fierce dedication which proves that the best stories can be scripted with pencils and crayons just as well as they can with an exclusively adult pen.

For more information on the work that The Allen Prize for Young Writers does, visit their official website, as well as their frequently-updated Facebook page.

Group photo by Rodell Warner, our official 2012 Festival photographer.

Paper Based: 25 Years of Bookselling Excellence

This year's shortlisted titles (bottom row) on display in the bookshop window!

A few days before the adrenaline high of the 2012 NGC Bocas Lit Fest was launched, I had the opportunity to sit in the lobby of the Hotel Normandie with Joan Dayal, the proprietress of Paper Based Bookshop, which occupies a cozy nook of the hotel foyer. It’s a little disconcerting to me that more Trinbagonians don’t know about Joan and her shop, which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to interview her in the first place. Paper Based shouldn’t be a well-kept secret, as romantic as that notion seems… it is a supportive bastion for all things Caribbean and literary. Really, when one thinks of acquiring the next Earl Lovelace novel, or the upcoming release from a promising, fresh regional talent, Paper Based is the place to turn, first.

The heart of what fuels a business founded in books, Joan tells me, is a love of reading. She’s quick to add that many other pragmatic concerns must run alongside this bibliophilia, otherwise one might find oneself at the helm of a sinking ship. Thankfully, that sort of demise seems never to have been on the cards for Joan, who runs her establishment with generous helpings of acumen, of a keen investment in the literary pulse of the people, of a solid commitment to research in reading trends. She has kept in touch with what readers want to read, with how readers appreciate the feel of a bookshop that’s not mired in profit margins, in a way that I daresay larger conglomerate booksellers tend to miss.

Gorgeous ARC magazines proudly preening!

Joan and Paper Based’s loyalty to the Bocas Lit Fest has its roots in the very reception of the idea of an inclusive literary festival on these shores. She tells me of her early talks with festival director Marina Salandy-Brown, wherein the two lamented the dearth of ground-level, home-brewed celebrations of our islands’ writers, readers and publishers. What distinguishes their conversations from so many that are had, cross-island, about the state of local literary appreciation, is that Salandy-Brown, along with a core collective of supportive individuals (of which Joan is and continues to be a proud member) purposed to actually do something about it. The result is what we’re currently enjoying – four unfettered days and nights of bookish delight, and a festival calendar that extends far beyond this event-crammed long weekend. Joan is visibly proud when she speaks of Paper Based’s role as the festival’s booksellers’ coordinator. I imagine of how difficult it would be to encounter this warm enthusiasm in an impersonal, unapologetically commercial paperback pusher, and, even mid-interview, I’m flooded with gratitude for the very existence of Paper Based – a telling marker that Joan is doing multiple things right, in an age where brick and mortar bookstores are literally crumbling beneath the yoke of financial sustainability, both home and abroad. Times are hard, we both agree… but the people keep reading.

As I’d hoped it would, my talk with Joan really runs the gamut. We muse on the evolving trends in publishing, principal among them the rapid ascent of the e-book’s popularity, of the fact that Kindles, Nooks and Kobos have become as indispensable as mobile phones to so many. We discuss the difficulties inherent in sourcing book orders from foreign countries, and the exorbitant costs of shipping, issues which have been aired at the inaugural meeting of the Caribbean Literature Action Group (CALAG), which convened one day before the festival launch. With bold, necessary initiatives like CALAG and the Bocas Lit Fest on the rise, the future seems bright for the world of Caribbean arts and letters, doesn’t it? In the midst of this, Joan reminds me, it’s important to continue encouraging our vibrantly promising talent, a mission to which Paper Based has dedicated itself over the years.

A certain book blogger poring over Rahul Bhattacharya's novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care.

A bookshop loved equally by both readers and writers, Paper Based held its 25th anniversary celebrations on March 3rd, to a deeply appreciative audience. Andre Bagoo, one of this year’s featured festival writers, had his work read by Barbara Jenkins and Jaime Bagoo. Other writers sharing their work included novelists Lawrence Scott (who read from his forthcoming poetry collection), prolific and celebrated author Earl Lovelace, winner of this year’s fiction category prize for Is Just A Movie, and poet-academic Jennifer Rahim. From every description I’ve heard of it, it sounds like it was a fantastic event, and I’m dreadfully sorry to have missed it. I’ve since resolved to make up for it by attending every single future Paper Based event that occurs while I’m present in Trinidad. Having been to a couple in the past, I can attest to the knowledge that they are a rare treat for those who enjoy author-reader interaction and stimulation.

It is quite impossible to wish someone like Joan Dayal anything but all the best, given her quiet generosity, her unflagging devotion to our regional arts, and her personal investment in our nation’s attitudes to reading, and so I wish her the bookish best, repeatedly! Here’s hoping that Joan and I can sit down in another twenty-five years, to chat once more about Paper Based’s rousing, and encouraging, successes.

Many thanks to Joan Dayal for her willingness to be interviewed, for her generosity in response and availability. This interview was originally posted on the Bocas Lit Fest blogPhotos by Keroy J. Chee Chow.

Paper Based Bookshop is located at The Normandie, 10 Nook Avenue, St. Anns, Trinidad. Its opening hours are Mon.-Fri.,10.00 – 18.00, and Sat.,10.00 – 16.00. To get in touch, you can call the shop, at +1 868.625.3197, email at, and visit the well-updated Facebook page.

My 2012 Bocas Lit Fest Diary: Bocas’ Eve

Last year, in April, at least an entire library of my bookish dreams became page-turning realities, when I attended, and blogged for, the 2011 Bocas Lit Fest. One of the best things about this year’s festival is that I have the chance to do it all over again.

Don’t misunderstand; even if I weren’t part of the merrily busy Bocas staff, I would be no less in love with this festival. I’d still be present at as many of the events as I could reasonably stuff into my day. I’d still leave home early in the morning, to return long past the sunset, weary, my mind still turning a thousand gears of creative hyperstimulation. I’d still be sitting on the amphitheatre steps of the Trinidad and Tobago National Library on the festival’s last day, thinking that the next Bocas can’t come too soon.

The fact that we’re celebrating a second Bocas should, I hope, put paid to the notion that an entire festival seeking to highlight the importance of books, reading and publishing is flighty, fanciful, or worse, non-sustainable. So much of what makes us of these islands has its genesis in a singular, inimitable style of storytelling. How can it be claimed that the honouring of Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora stories is unworthy of every effort we can make to keep sharing those tales?

I confess that one of the best curated memories I possess of last year’s Bocas was sitting outside the Old Fire Station, after a New Talent Showcase that featured the readings of an exciting voice in prose fiction, and a Cropper Foundation co-alumni, Alake Pilgrim. While speaking with her about her work, two schoolgirls strolled by, the trail end of their conversation within earshot.

Girl I: What it have going on here? Something was advertising in the papers, ent?

Girl II: I eh know, nah. I think might be some book thing, but I eh know. 

Perhaps it’s reactionary of me to be sad. I know that not everyone likes reading. Not every one thrills to the sight of writers they’ve only up until that point encountered in the pages of their favourite novels, their best-beloved poetry collections, their most fiercely defended non-fiction paperbacks. I’m not saying that the country should grind to a halt to take the Bocas Festival in… but it worries me that a basic awareness is lacking. It worries me that festivals like these, which seek, at their core, to be all-embracing, all-encompassing, generously ecumenical in outreach, instead often appear to be elitist, exclusive and esoteric fora wherein only red wine is sipped, where only Standard English is allowed. People… please, perish the thought.

I believe that, on Bocas’ Eve, if I want to transmit one message over all other messages about this celebration, it is this:

All are invited; all are welcome.

Let’s not be literary exclusivists at the 2012 NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Let’s be lovers of books. A full day of events kicks off bright and early at 9 am tomorrow. I hope to see you there, with your notepads/ novels for signing/ fresh enthusiasm in tow!

To learn more about the Bocas Lit Fest, visit the website, here.
For Thursday 26th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.

For Friday 27th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.
For Saturday, 28th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.
For Sunday, 29th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.