So the question I think I got most at the Nature Island Literary Festival was some version of what do you do? Ironic, considering I was at a literary festival, but understandable when you consider that most of us aren’t able to live by the pen. I ought to know. I’m living it, and way too often, it’s touch and go; other times though, weekends like this, it’s filled with words and laughter and opportunities to connect with other writers from our too far apart islands, to bathe in the language and creative spunk and spark of my people.
I was able while at the NILF to re-connect with a former professor and mentor from my University of the West Indies days, Mervyn Morris
; to re-connect with a newer friend from the land of publishing, Mario Picayo; to connect for the first time with the supremely talented Bajan brother Adrian Green, one of my festival favourites; to sit and chat with literary elder and engaging storyteller George Lamming (whomI’d seen speak a couple of times and whom I’d met before but never heard read from his work nor got the opportunity or maybe the nerves pre-NILF to sit and chat with).
It was also an opportunity to share my writing.
I read a new poem, Ode to the Pan Man, an old favourite, Ah Write! and, of course, an excerpt or two from my book Oh Gad! one of the first readings I’ve done incidentally where nerves weren’t eating out my insides right beforehand – something I can only credit to how distracted I was by the opportunity to hear and listen to such great Caribbean talent, too distracted to wonder what I was doing among them and worry if I was about to fall flat on my face.
I didn’t, by the way. The reviews to my reading were largely positive and I’m hoping (as I do after every such event) that word of mouth will be positive and it will be reflected in my sales going forward.
But honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about that, then.
Such sentiments were drowned out by the festival energy, out under the tent, flanked by the green mountains of Dominica, on the grounds of the UWI campus, which was filled with music: from the Sisserou singers who opened the festival to the Venezuelan musician and dancers who provided lunch time entertainment to the Rastafarian (Nyabinghi) drummer who spontaneously accompanied some of the poets or just played for pleasure during the breaks so that it never felt like there was nothing happening to the blast of the trumpet during the poetic performances by Reseau Poetique Guadeloupe…
If you missed it, and I hope you won’t again, hint hint, you also missed:
Roger Bonair-Agard: the coolest things about him aren’t even the “duende” he has tattooed into his arm or the Mohawk he sort of seems to be growing out, though those were pretty cool, not when his words of fire are the main attraction;
Lennox Honychurch: the esteemed Dominican historian still has a charmingly boyish enthusiasm for his subject and an ability to make history come alive – as his audience, we were well and truly enraptured as he did a literature review of books mentioning Dominica by visitors, all the way back to Columbus’ time, all the way forward to the near-present (one of the striking things was how people really do see what they want to see, which is not necessarily the same as what’s right in front of their nose);
The Book Fair: though I would have liked to see my book and books by all the participating authors on sale at the event, it was for any bibliophile, a temptation, especially the Papillotte Press and local books section in no small measure because these, well, they are books by local authors and/or books reflecting local culture, and if you’re like me you kind of want to take a piece of wherever you visit with you (case in point the book of french creole sayings that I bought);
The Craft Fair: And how inspired of them to marry a craft fair to the book fair and literary festival, as if they just knew that Creatives (or is it just women?) can’t resist well crafted jewelry (I got three, count ‘em, three pieces – let’s just say that artisans Albert Casimir and Julian James are also persuasive salesmen);
The Workshops: It was nice sitting in a class led by Professor Morris again with whom I was paired in the UWI mentorship programme and who also taught my first fiction writing course, and subsequently recommended to me the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami, which I applied to and was accepted, where I started The Boy from Willow Bend during my first grueling workshop experience, and the rest is history, as they say. What I remember of Professor Morris, apart from the things that he introduced me to (including the Jamaican theatrical scene), was that he was one of the early readers and critics and encouragers of my work (perhaps the most significant since previous mentor Calvin Holder, who taught me English Lit at the Antigua State College). I didn’t think he’d remember me (it was so long ago). But he did and it was nice to see him again and to sit quietly (mostly quietly) while he gently nudged writers to discover the best in their work as he’d done for me all those years earlier. On a morning such as that, even the buzzing cell phones (sorry, this is one of my pet peeves… should you have to tell people to silence their cell phones in certain settings) were a mild nuisance, at worst. I enjoyed the bit of play he brought to the session and indeed, Professor Morris, randomness can be quite logical and illuminating, revealing things that are surprising and true (because, as you said, if you’re only using your conscious mind, you’re only writing about what you think you know);
The opportunities to engage in impromptu discussions around artistic issues and the issues that spring from that – from Dominican artistes lamenting some of the unexpected realities of attempts to collect artiste royalties to book publishing it was illuminating…and a reminder of how far we still have to go as writers in the Caribbean to creating an environment that encourages us along our path;
The organized discussions around issues like the lyrics in the bouyon music (which echoed the controversy surrounding Antigua and Barbuda’s road march winning song, Kick een she back doh and made me wish that just as WCK founders readily stepped to the stage to explore the meaning and the music, our artistes here could be similarly engaged) and the challenges (and contradictions) vis-a-vis press freedom (again, an issue all too familiar to Antiguan and Barbudan people);
The opportunities to reflect – like I’ll be musing over this point from George Lamming’s keynote address, borrowed I believe from Norman Manley: “There is a difference between living in a place and belonging to it”;
The opportunity to be engaged by fiction and poetry with which you feel a real sense of belonging – a connection – because at heart it’s about you, your world whether written by Merle Hodge in Trinidad or Adrian Augier in St. Lucia.
It is that sense of connection that no doubt stirred the audience to laughter and stirred other darker and more heated emotions, leaving us all (or certainly me) feeling filled, fulfilled, and enlightened, if a little wet – this is the nature isle after all.
who, combined with all the above, made this a truly enjoyable experience.
Please note all except one photo used in this post are courtesy Celia Sorhaindo. Other images from the festival can be found here. Please do not use any of her photos without her permission.
Find out more on the festival here.
A reminder that as with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.
As for that recurring question about what I do for a living. This might answer the question.