I travelled recently to St. Croix for the first ever U.S. Virgin Islands Literary Festival, March 26th to 29th – or in my case March 26th to 28th since I left a day early, but not so early that I missed the March 28th Jamaica Kincaid keynote address. A highlight was the shout out from her (in her words, her “countrywoman” and, pinch me now, “a wonderful writer”). This is for me one of those moments (a moment in which I almost lost it) to keep because Jamaica is one of the reasons I’m even a writer writing books.
As I said in an interview recorded for later posting, my discovery of her book Annie John: A Novel all those years ago was one of the things that freed me to begin claiming my voice, my choice as a writer. Her speech was a blend of sharp insights and soft delivery style. As programme manager Alscess Lewis Brown
said in her introduction of the Annie John, Lucy: A Novel, My Brother, and more author, “Jamaica Kincaid always provokes some kind of response.” On this occasion, Kincaid seemed, as she herself observed, to be speaking to the converted (“she’s beautiful,” I overheard as she took position at the front of the University of the Virgin Islands great hall). She spoke about our history of enslavement and the false concept of emancipation – false because it attempted to not only abolish the situation “but the very idea that it had ever happened…this removal of human beings from themselves”. She spoke about our beginnings and about the persistence of memory, and of what can come of trying to understand it all. “Who you are is so perplexing,” she mused, “how to make sense of anything is so perplexing; but of that dilemma …might come something beautiful.” And so we write; it’s one of the ways we try to understand. “When we write,” she said, “we are writing ourselves. We are inserting our individual existence into the larger context of things.” Though her novels mine the very personal, Jamaica insisted that there is more there. “In Annie John,” she said, “you might think I’m writing about a mother and daughter, but I’m really writing about power.” And on the subject of where our memory intersects with history – this thing that happened to us i.e. our enslavement as Africans in the ‘new world’ brought on initially by the accident of Columbus landing here, to paraphrase how she put it – she noted that “our presence offers insight into the thing that happened.” And so we write; it’s one of the ways we claim this history/our story. “Our memory is very important,” Kincaid said, “and our memory and our history has not yet been fixed or even acknowledged in its fullness. So I hope there are many people who will continue to contribute to it.” The A Small Place author knows from experience that sometimes what we write will offend but seemed to say, so be it; and to make this point she referenced the new testament letters of the prophet Paul, letters which exist whether we like him and what he has to say or not – and she doesn’t. “They won’t like what you say but they’ll vanish and your words will exist,” she said.
Jamaica’s Saturday morning presentation, and her embrace of me as a writer, was for me a striking climax to a heady, stimulating,… and draining few days as one of the event’s “featured authors” (per the brochure which listed featured authors as Kincaid, Jeffrey B. Perry, Malaika Adero, Tiphanie Yanique, me, Sharon Millar, Gillian Royes, and Muntsa Plana I Valls).
– at each school they had to find a translator for her, usually from the teaching staff, and in the last case, a student who was such a natural I venture to say he has a career as a translator ahead of him if he wants it. The school visits were a joy. Muntsa, who does art therapy at home, shared children’s stories while I read from my teen/young adult novel Musical Youth. It was a long day but we managed to be refreshed enough, come evening, for the opening at Government House.
The lectures and small group sessions began Friday with a keynote by Tiphanie Yanique, who has gone on to award winning acclaim but as she reminded her audience, in a very personal presentation, blossomed right there in the Virgin Islands.
Another highlight for me as an observer was the knowledge dropped by Malaika Adero, a long time publishing industry insider, during her lunch time presentation – with a packed programme, the organizers weren’t wasting time. Adero’s presentation was a masterclass on the challenges facing writers and the opportunities to be grasped in the industry, and by the industry, as it is today. She noted, for instance, the need to push for more accuracy, more inclusion, even in terms of how books are positioned in the marketplace. “We have to re-think boxes and the way that we commodify culture,” she said. She tried to tip writers in the audience, from listing diversity-friendly publishers, bookstores, journals, and programmes, to providing insight to getting positive attention for your manuscript submissions.
“What I would encourage Caribbean writers to do is not to explain your culture,” she said. “Don’t write to please publishers, dig deep and write your stories…and don’t think you have to write a particular way because you’re a Caribbean writer, be more experimental, don’t avoid who you are individually.”
I had many encounters – including a memorable one with Dr. Chenzira Davis Kahina who informed me that she’d presented my poem, Tongue Twista at a Caribbean Studies Association conference, and many, many …many Antiguans. Many of whom were urged to buy my books by my unofficial publicist, Edwina Taylor, whose main function was to get me where I needed to be but who in more ways than one went above and beyond.
My main assignments were two panels and a reading. I don’t have pictures of either as yet but will add them to this post as soon as I do. I can’t even give you a word-visual since you can’t have total recall when you’re winging it – every note I had prepared was for naught (as in not used, with the exception of one Chimamanda Adichie quote and a Harper Lee reference). I can tell you that my co-panelists were Trinidad and Tobago’s Sharon Millar, Jamaican born USVI resident Gillian Royes, and Yanique; and our panel chairs were Amelia Headley Lamont in the case of the panel on What’s in a Good Story and Nancy Morgan in the case of the panel on The Role of Children and Young Adult Literature in Shaping Society.
Millar – a Commonwealth and Small Axe award winning story writer who was releasing her much anticipated first collection, The Whale House and Other Stories – and I shared the spotlight for a joint reading that evening at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts in Fredriksted. I read from Musical Youth – the choice of what I’d be reading up in the air literally until I was getting ready to start. But it went well, I think; the combination of Cruzan rum, albeit only one glass, and two days’ worth of whirlwind (read: tired) may be skewing my perspective. If so, that’s the kind of skewing I like because I had a good time, overall; networked, fellowshipped, read, listened, laughed, even danced a little….so many good conversations and good vibes overall.
So I’ll end with a big up to the organizers and even bigger thank you, with best wishes to Valerie Combie, Alscess, and the entire hard working team, that this event proves a promising start to a good, good thing.