Back from Guyana

“Part of the literary ecosystem are the editors who work with writers.”
– Nicholas Laughlin

I spent the week of January 17th 2016 in Guyana, one of nine participants selected for a Carib Lit workshop on fiction editing.

group photo

Pictured, front from left are Peepal Tree publisher Jeremy Poynting, and writers/workshop participants Shivanee Ramlochan, Nailah Imoja, Jane King, and Felene Cayetano; and back from right Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, Kim Dismont Robinson, Ruel Johnson, Tanya Batson-Savage, Richard Georges, and me (in red).

The workshop was held in partnership with Commonwealth Writers, with support from the British Council and CODE (which you may remember are also the sponsors of the Burt Award for which I was a finalist in 2014 and which in 2015 sponsored a workshop that I facilitated here in Antigua). It was facilitated by Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press (UK based, publishing since 1986) and Johnny Temple of Akashic Press (that’s former rock bassist Johnny Temple! of Akashic books – US based, publishing since 1997). My fellow travelers were from Jamaica (independent publisher and media person Tanya Batson-Savage), Belize (librarian and writer Felene Cateyano), Tortola in the BVI (poeting professor and doctoral candidate Richard Georges), Barbados (hey, Nailah Imoja… writer-teacher, and more), Guyana-which-technically-means-he-didn’t-travel-there-but-whatever (Ruel Johnson, writer and activist-cum-cultural advisor), St. Lucia (Jane King…poet and more), Trinidad and Tobago (critic and poet Shivanee Ramlochan), and Bermuda (Kim Dismont Robinson…folklife officer and more). You’ll notice with Caribbean writers there’s always a lot of and more, because in building and/or contributing to a literary culture in our own countries, we often have to work, as, I think, Lucian poet (author of Sounding Ground) Vladimir Lucien once said to create the environment we need.

Which brings me to why I was there. The workshop was part of the larger mission to “build on the tradition of great Caribbean literature by supporting a vibrant literary community and a profitable, sustainable publishing industry within our region…strengthening literary publishing through more training and development opportunities for writers, (building) stronger technical skills, and (supporting) focused promotion and distribution initiatives to help overcome geographical challenges.”

I applied because, well, as an author and a freelance writer and editor, as a writer journeying, as someone who lives by “picking up this and picking up that”, here and there, I’m always on the lookout for (no not jobs but) opportunities. And this seemed like a good opportunity to polish my editing skills – take some of the dull off of it, and shine. It also goes without saying that my network grows, often in ways I can’t foresee, each time I step off my island and in to the larger community of writers and people in publishing. Engagement and opportunities can grow from that.  Here’s the thing though, it’s also about community. As part of my application, I was required to submit a proposal and in drafting that proposal, I saw linkages (however tenuous) between my volunteerism with Wadadli Pen, my journeying as a writer from a small place, and the need for small voices rich with imagination and their own stories to be heard.

Getting there was bumpy, not the flight but things having nothing (or very little) to do with the organization and execution of the activity (which was well managed). But as with much else, I’m finding that if I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted that. Instead I feel happy; happy that I went (my first trip to Guyana), happy I was there (nothing is perfect, not when so many different energies are involved, but, still), happy to be home (and all that comes with that).

We had homework – before we even got started, we had stories (plus a book) we needed to read in advance for critiquing purposes (these instructions came in only a few days before I was set to travel and while I was busy trying to wrap up life and projects to be gone for a week so it was a bit of a test but I think I passed).

We did practical assignments – for example, preparing a book cover blurb and design brief for a forthcoming book (a challenging but fun and interesting exercise); editorial meetings to select authors to publish (and to be able to justify and defend those choices per criteria used by publishers when deciding such things); and while we didn’t get deep into the weeds with line-by-line editing, we stepped on the grass.

We had food for thought – what factors can help or hinder your publishing journey (perception sometimes becomes reality and all that), how can we be a part of the development of Peekash, which is itself developmental as the hybrid (Peepal + Akashic, get it?) publishing house committed to showcasing regional artists, how to unpack these and other questions piled in to this week that in the end just seemed to fly by.

reading in Guyana

Reading from The Boy from Willow Bend at Moray House.

We did a reading at Moray House to a full house. This was perhaps my favourite activity – kicking back and hearing the unique voices of writers usually scattered across the Caribbean, gathered in one place. As it was my first time hearing them read, my first time in some cases ‘reading’ their words, it was a delightful night of discovery for the literature lover in me.

I must say a word or two about Moray House (located at the intersection of Camp and Quamina), a former residence (of the de Caires family) which (under the stewardship of a trust) now serves as a cultural space. Something about this idea appeals to me, reminding me of visiting the Louisa May Alcott house in Massachusetts, though this was more of a living, breathing, and, especially on the night of our readings, artistically vibrant space than a museum. Both speak to a respect for literature and culture that warms me a-kinda-how. Sitting in the Moray House meeting room – a former living room? den? dining room? – not even the persistent beeping of car horns, as vehicles shouldered their way aggressively along Georgetown’s speedways, popped the bubble of words and literary exploration we found there. As these things do, it stirred a yearning for such oases (not to be confused with the coffee bar/restaurant frequented by some during our time there, and the site of our farewell-Guyana dinner): spaces where the arts matter at home, and in our region.

As I said on our last day, my favourite-favourite aspect was connecting with the other writers; and I am thankful for having had the opportunity to be in the room with them, learning from and with them, and from our very able and engaging facilitators over those five days.

What else, well, part of the process of these types of things is the what-next; I think it’s fair to say that a door has been opened (especially for those who might have felt shut out before), and the challenge (as we return to our lives) is keeping it open, opening it wider so others can pass through, and filling the space/s on both sides of that door with people networking, doing projects, making things happen; truly reflecting and respecting spaces big and small in our richly diverse part of the world. The organizers have articulated a desire to create relationships with national projects with regional reverberations; and we, the workshop participants, and you, reading this, I suppose, if you’re part of our Caribbean, are to consider how we can be a part of this, if we want to.

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Also check out Shivanee Ramlochan’s blog on the experience at Commonwealth Writers.

4 thoughts on “Back from Guyana

  1. Pingback: Blogger on Books lll | Wadadli Pen

  2. Great post, Joanne! It was a pleasure to meet you after enjoying your work from afar for so long. We must definitely keep those doors open! And by the way, you ACED the homework!🙂 1 Love…

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