Ten things I liked about la troisième édition du Congrès des Ecrivains de la Caraïbe

So, what do you when you start to come down from a natural high? Grab hold of the high lights of course. So, with kudos to the organizers of The International Congress of Caribbean Writers, held at the Langley Resort Fort Royal, April 10th to 14th in Guadeloupe, here are my personal highlights:

Earl Lovelace and me (Joanne C. Hillhouse) - Photo by John R Lee.

Earl Lovelace and me (Joanne C. Hillhouse) – Photo by John R Lee.

1. I danced with Earl Lovelace It was the last night of the Congress and the vibes were good. My limin’ companion for most of the cocktails and dinner was Earl Lovelace, an award winning writer of great renown for books like The Wine of Astonishment, the Dragon Can’t Dance, and Is Just a Movie. He was extremely generous and so down to earth (and fun), I almost (almost but not quite) forgot I was talking to one of our literary icons. At some point, after a captivating French Creole dance presentation, wine, food, and talk, the Trini and Waladli in our bloods heard the music…and then we danced.

2. The moment right after my panel… Considering how nervous I was about presenting, the positive feedback to my presentation felt like a long, soothing shower of appreciation, respect and RELIEF. “Nice speech,” said one writer. “Perfect,” said another.

I was part of the opening panel, and the opening bat was American writer Russell Banks (author, I would discover on further research, of numerous acclaimed books including Continental Drift and Affliction, the latter adapted into a film which won an Oscar for James Coburn and a nomination for Nick Nolte). Banks had also spoken the previous evening at the opening. Both times, I found what he said relatable: for example, this idea of the novelist as someone who takes a subjective position, seeing history or reality through the eyes of his/her characters, humanizing them in the process. “The power and strength of fiction,” he said, “is not to displace history but to provide a higher kind of truth – the truth of what it is to be human.” Yes, this!

Also on my panel were Puerto Rican writer Aurea Maria Sotomayor and French writer Gisele Pineau, both addressing variations on the theme of memory/history and fiction – including the process of rediscovery through fictional exploration and the process of releasing the pain by confronting it.

I was the last speaker on that panel. Nerves were inevitable. So I’m sure you’ll appreciate me taking a moment to openly thank the other writers for their generous embrace of my presentation.The paper, actually an excerpt of a longer paper to be published in the Congress journal, can be read here.

3. Just being there The ride from the airport at Point a Pitre to the coastline along Plage de Petit Bas Vent in Deshaies was longish enough to make the drowsiness of a sleepless night start to catch up with me. I like rides like this; unwinding as you wend your way to your destination. Part of unwinding is toting no baggage but what’s needed for this adventure; hard to leave that other-life baggage behind with a cell phone. One day, I saw a woman’s beach time sun bath interrupted by a ringing cell phone. For me, though, letting the beach and the sun and the surf quiet my mind long enough to hear my characters again is one more reason I was happy to be there…and cell free.

4. Finding Character In the real world, I worry sometimes that there is no story there but there in the stillness with nothing but the waves and the light breeze and an open book stimulating my mind and, outside of the Congress engagements, no expectation of interruption – they peeked through … they peeked through as if through a thin curtain and I know they are still there …a fellowship would be ideal, giving me much needed time to write, but, until such comes through, I’ll settle for stolen moments like my time in Guadeloupe and the small reassurance that they are still there.

5. In literary company Just being there was nice but being in the company of writers I’ve read or studied, being counted as a

Me (Joanne C. Hillhouse) with Kendel Hippolyte.

Me (Joanne C. Hillhouse) with Kendel Hippolyte.

writer among them, was a boost to the spirit and another one of those how did I get here moments. The feeling hit, first, after they put up the banner and I saw the who’s who of Caribbean writers on it (and, somehow, me). It continued into the morning when I was greeted by Lovelace while strolling the beach. It continued in conversation after conversation – from my bus chat with Jamaican writer and retired UWI Dean Velma Pollard each of us sharing about our work and how “poetry happens”; to acclaimed St. Lucian poet and dramatist Kendel Hippolyte, who became my liming pardner, a font of good conversation and deep laughter;

to dinner time chat with Bahamian poet Marion Bethel, St. Lucia’s Macdonald Dixon, and Commonwealth Award winning writer Erna Brodber whose Jane and Louisa will soon come Home was on my reading list when I studied years earlier at UWI in her home country, Jamaica.

The experience was deepened by the fact that the Congress explored issues like history and memory in creative works; in other words, providing food for the brain as well as the spirit. One recurring question was where are the heroes of today?  – One audience member questioning the perceived lack of heroes in literary imagination today and perhaps, by extension in society. The discussion that came out of this explored whether resistance and rebellion were things of the past because “we’ve misplaced our sense of purpose” or whether their stories just haven’t been told as yet.

Meanwhile, the presentation on Dessalines by Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot has to be my favourite. That there are still conflicts with respect to the representation of historical truth and/or things still to be unlearned was brought into sharp focus by his declarations on the disconnect between the literary world (the literary elite as he termed them) and the world of the people (the masses). Referencing the Haitian Revolution, he compared the representation of Dessalines in the literature to his embrace among the Haitian people who conjure his name often. “In writing, Dessalines only have marginal spaces,” he said. “He is a blatant case of the space between popular and literary memory.” And he questioned whether it was that L’ouverture was more acceptable to the western world. “Dessalines always was presented in the histories as a kind of monster,” he said “(but) he was a hero to the Haitian people.” He said “our memory have to be decolonized.” This intersects with what Banks said in his presentation about the role writers play in establishing a new discourse which rises above the past and its neglected truths. Bajan poet Esther Philips, who shared the Trouillot panel, brought it forward, wondering, “Do we live what we write?” She said, “We still have contradictions between what writers put on the page and what we live as individuals.”

I tell you, is heavy business!

6. Read-in Conferences can get heavy, lots of academic papers, lots of big and sometimes confounding ideas. But get a group of writers together, you might get the literary equivalent of a jam session, a read-in session. Slouching against the wall in the open air as sun set listening to Lovelace read from Is Just a Movie, Elizabeth Nunez read from Anna In-Between, Lawrence Scott read from Light Falling on Bamboo , Leone Ross reading  Love Silk Food, previously published in the Best British Short Stories collection…

Pictured (seated) Leone Ross and Kendel Hippolyte; (standing) Joanne C. Hillhouse and Earl Lovelace. (Photo courtesy JR Lee)

Pictured (seated) Leone Ross and Kendel Hippolyte; (standing) Joanne C. Hillhouse and Earl Lovelace. (Photo courtesy JR Lee)

IMG_3091luxuriating as they read in pure enjoyment of story, feeling emboldened (eager even) to read as wellIMG_3067; and having Ross touch me on the arm after my Oh Gad! excerpt to tell me my reading was “powerful!” was a gracious act on her part and a moving moment for me. The woman with the funky haircut who stopped to tell me how much she appreciated hearing the Creole in my book as it’s meant to sound was icing on the cake. Allahdis is what Olive Senior meant,  I think, when she wrote in her paper which can be found in the 2011 collection of Congress papers that we, “ need to have a space where we can listen to each other’s writing, our voices reading our own writing.”

7. Out of many, many tongues Kudos to the translators for helping us all understand each other. Having someone constantly in your ear can be distracting but it was a necessity at this multilingual, multicultural, multi-genre event, writers and academics presenting in their native tongue – or at least their standard since creole translations, given the multitude of creoles, might have been pushing it. There were times though during the read-in when I and others would take the voice out of my/our ear and just listen and find appreciation in that too even with not knowing what was being said. As Senior said in the just-mentioned 2011 paper:  “Even if we do not understand the words, the image of the writer, the gesture and the cadence of the language are what form an indelible impression on each of us”. This!

8. Opportunity I learned that my online presence snagged the attention of the person who recommended me for the Congress; and at the Congress saw not only sales of all three of my books (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Oh Gad!) other doors of opportunity garped…now I just have to figure out how to push them open and step through.

POST NOTE: Our efforts to stay in touch and to find ways on keeping our new network alive is an encouraging development.

9. Russell Banks It’s clear from all that I’ve written that I found a lot of what he had to say interesting and resonant. For instance, “the writer needs to silence the peeping tom reader on his shoulder…the only way to write for the reader is to first murder the reader.” He’s not speaking of a literal murder, of course, but effectively silencing the voices that may impose their boundaries on the story, effectively censoring it. It was easier to do, he said, when he had no readers. I also related to what he said about “hearing voices” and ‘seeing things’ not literally, of course, but playing to that idea that writing involves surrendering to the process.

10. Edwidge Dandicat wasn’t there Okay, so this isn’t a favourite moment (I would much rather she had been there especially after more than one person attested to how warm and genuine she is in person) but I was happy for her win of the Grand Prize in Caribbean Literature, a prize last claimed by Lovelace. She won for her book Create Dangerously. Dandicat is a favourite writer of mine and while Farming of Bones remains my personal favourite, this insightful and inspirational book which I blogged about here… is a close second. So, yes, I wish she’d been there…but the announcement of her win made for a satisfying climax to the Congress…an event – not perfect, no, what is? – but of which I am happy to have been a part.

All photos featured in this post are by widely anthologized St. Lucian poet John Robert Lee whose most recent collection is Elemental.

John R Lee and me (Joanne C. Hillhouse)

John R Lee and me (Joanne C. Hillhouse)

Reflections on other literary events:

Launch of Oh Gad! (Antigua) – 2012

Oh Gad! book club discussion (Antigua 2012

Launch of The Boy from Willow Bend (Antigua) – 2003

Callaloo Callaloo2 (USA) – 2012

Telling our Stories: an Evening showcasing Antiguan and Barbudan writing (Canada) – 2011

BIM Conference Celebrating Caribbean Women Writers (Barbados) – 2008

Friends of Antigua Public Library Author in Residence programme (USA) – 2007

Moonlight Street Festival (Antigua) – 2008

Nature Island Literary Festival (Dominica) – 2012

The launch of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (Antigua) – date N/A

The Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars (Suriname) – 2012 READ CONFERENCE PAPER

Just Write Writers Retreat (Antigua) – 2012

Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival  ABILF ABILF2 – several years beginning 2006

Calabash (Jamaica) – 2007

Greenland Books and Things opening (St. Kitts) – 2013

Plus the Wadadli Pen awards is a highlight of each year. Wadadli Pen is the youth writing programme I run.

Hm, just realized I never shared on my time at Breadloaf (2008, USA), the University of Puerto Rico’s Islands in Between OECS Conference at which I was keynote speaker (2003, Antigua) nor the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute (1995, USA) …but then I wasn’t blogging yet though I do mention Breadloaf on this list and the CFWSI on that.