Caribbean Beat Magazine

Booking round the islands: Caribbean literary festivals

A flourishing crop of literary festivals around the Caribbean are a book-lover’s delight. Caribbean Beat’s guide to the year’s literary highlights

  • A Sunday afternoon performance on the main Calabash stage. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell
  • Midnight Robber Bill Trotman performs at Bocas. Photograph by Rodell Warner, courtesy Bocas Lit Fest
  • The majestic Pitons have inspired St Lucia’s poet for generations. Photograph by Lucia Pitter /
  • Dusk falls over Independence Square in Paramaribo
  • Folk singers perform between readings at NILF. Photograph courtesy Nature Island Literary Festival

The Caribbean’s cultural calendar overflows with carnivals and music events. But recently a new crop of literature festivals has also sprouted, to the delight of book-lovers. Here’s our concise guide to the literature festival circuit, from Cuba to Montserrat to Trinidad — with many stops in between

Calabash International Literary Festival

When next?: May 2014
Where?: Jake’s Hotel, Treasure Beach, Jamaica

When Calabash first launched in 2000, the idea must have seemed hopelessly idealistic. A world-class literary festival in a small fishing village on Jamaica’s south coast? But the unlikely location in Treasure Beach — with the wide sweep of Calabash Bay as a backdrop to the main stage — is a huge part of what’s made Calabash a fixture on the festival circuit. The gorgeous landscape and laid-back vibe — as famous authors mingle with an enthusiastic audience under a giant beachside tent — give the festival an atmosphere like no other. Add a carefully curated roster of writers (who can’t help but feel relaxed) and liberal doses of classic reggae, and you have the winning formula. After the tenth anniversary festival in 2010, Calabash shifted to a biennial schedule — but the longer wait just means keener anticipation.

Poet Kwame Dawes, chairman of Calabash, on the festival’s earthy vibe:

What are some standout moments from past festivals that capture the spirit of Calabash?
Paul Holdengraber in conversation with Pico Iyer on stage, Junot Díaz startling the audience with his brand of humor and shock, Derek Walcott unveiling his poetic broadside against another giant of West Indian literature.

What is the Calabash vibe?
Diversity, earthiness, innovation. Jamaican looseness and ease combined with Scandinavian precision and care.

What lies ahead for the festival?
We have a loyal audience, and our commitment is to grow that audience. If Jamaica can continue to be proud of Calabash, then we will know we are doing something right.



Nature Island Literary Festival

When next?: 9 to 11 August, 2013
Where?: the University of the West Indies Open Campus, on the outskirts of Roseau, and venues across Dominica

Launched in 2008 to celebrate Dominica’s thirtieth anniversary of Independence, NILF is set in the verdant grounds of UWI’s Dominica campus, next to the historic Botanical Gardens and overlooking the Roseau River. The green hills of the “Nature Isle” rise nearby — an inspiration, perhaps, to writers hoping their words will soar too. The main festival opens after Emancipation Day, preceded by satellite events at the Carnegie Free Library and the public markets in Roseau and Portsmouth. Readings and talks by writers from Dominica and neighbouring islands are the highlights of the programme, but NILF has its eye on the next generation of literary talent too, with a series of workshops for budding writers, and competitions for the best hundred-word story and eight-line poem.

Playwright Alwin Bully, chairman of NILF’s organising team, on the festival’s casual tone:

What makes NILF distinctive?
The relaxed and casual atmosphere of the event and the open and welcoming nature of the average Dominican allow for easy mingling of visiting writers with audience and workshop participants. And the wonders of the Nature Isle are always within a few minutes drive from the festival venue.

What are some standout moments from past festivals?
A lively exchange between the audience and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott on the qualities of good poetry. Walcott had insinuated that the work of some young dub poets who performed earlier that night was not really poetry. The public debate continued for weeks after the festival.
And the rapt attention of a packed audience as Jamaican poet Kei Miller wove his spell over them, with his poignant voice ringing out in the stillness of the night.



WordALIVE Literary Festival

When next?: March 2013
Where?: Samaans Park, north of Castries

Per capita, St Lucia has produced more poetic talent than any other Caribbean territory — Derek Walcott heads the roster, with writers like Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King, John Robert Lee, and newcomer Vladimir Lucien following close behind. No surprise, then, that the WordALIVE Literary Festival has a special place for poetry. Launched in 2005, the festival began as a single modest evening of poetry and music, but has grown into a showcase for some of the Caribbean’s best poetic talent — indeed, Walcott premiered his latest book, White Egrets, at WordALIVE in 2010. The festival is also working to build a new and bigger audience for poetry in St Lucia, collaborating with the Ministry of Education to include poetry in the school curriculum, and organising a secondary schools performance poetry competition.

Poet Adrian Augier, producer of WordALIVE, on the importance of keeping poetry vital:

What is WordALIVE’s big goal?
To stir imaginations, raise expectations, and provide alternatives to the banality of options on the everyday entertainment menu.

Why do you think it’s important to get poetry into schools and increase its audience?
We need to rebuild a base of consciousness, the sense of an agenda, a motivation and purpose which drives us as a people to search deeper, look further, and do better. That is a function of the complexity of thought we engage in, our ability to query the status quo and design our own existences, individually and collectively.



NGC Bocas Lit Fest

When next?: 25 to 28 April, 2013
Where?: The National Library in Port of Spain, and other venues across Trinidad and Tobago

The hectic urban energy of downtown Port of Spain — where there’s a tall tale on every streetcorner and a “lyrics man” in every watering-hole — manifests in the packed schedule of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, with over a hundred events running non-stop over four days. Launched in 2011, Bocas is already the biggest literary event in the anglophone region, with a self-described Caribbean focus and international scope. Fiction writers and poets rub elbows with scientists and politicians in a programme that is about ideas as much as words — including an annual “Big Idea” lecture, discussions on current affairs, and the Caribbean leg of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in 2013. A New Talent Showcase spotlights the best writers of the emerging generation, and a full children’s festival includes a month of storytelling events and special activities for young readers during the four festival days.

Marina Salandy-Brown, Bocas founder and director, on the festival’s Caribbean focus:

What makes the NGC Bocas Lit Fest unique?
It is truly a Caribbean festival that draws on the talents of Caribbean people everywhere. This is helped by having two major prizes at the heart of the festival. Between the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and the Hollick Arvon Prize for emerging writers, nearly every country in the English-speaking Caribbean has been involved in the festival.

What is a standout moment from last year?
The name of the festival comes originally from the Spanish word for “mouth.” It reminds us that the oral tradition is so important to us. At the 2012 festival, the “robber talk” showdown — where a group of Midnight Robbers, characters from traditional Carnival masquerade, squared off and debated fifty years of Independence — was a quintessential moment for me.

Who is your favourite author to appear at the festival so far?
Now, that would be telling, wouldn’t it!


Carifesta XI

When next?: 16 to 25 August, 2013
Where?: venues in Paramaribo and around Suriname

The Caribbean Festival of Arts — known to all as Carifesta — has never kept to a regular schedule, but ever since its launch in 1972, it’s been the biggest regional festival taking in all the creative arts. Alongside music, dance, drama, and visual arts, literature has always had a big role in the programme — and the eleventh Carifesta, hosted in August 2013 by Suriname, will be no exception.

The host country will, of course, show off its best home-grown talent, joined by creative delegations from all participating countries. Expect to see some of the Caribbean’s iconic writers at events around Paramaribo, joined by younger wordsmiths of all mediums and genres. Publishers from around the region will show off their latest books at the Grand Cultural Market, the centre of festival activity. And organisers have announced plans for a special Carifesta anthology, showcasing the works of visiting writers. At least half the fun will come from making new friends and bumping into old ones in Paramaribo’s charming historic district, or along the city’s relaxed riverfront terrace, the Waterkant.


Miami Book Fair International
When next?: 17 to 24 November, 2013
Where?: downtown Miami

Caribbean writers share the spotlight with major international authors at the largest literary event in the south-eastern United States.

St Martin Book Fair
When next?: 30 May to 1 June, 2013
Where?: venues around Dutch Sint Maarten and French St Martin

Straddling the border between the Dutch and French sides of the island, the St Martin Book Fair is international and multilingual to the core.

Havana International Book Fair
When next?: February 2014
Where?: venues around Havana

Cuba’s biggest cultural event draws hundreds of thousands to see new books by local and international publishers, plus a programme of readings, concerts, and discussions.

Hay Cartagena
When next?: January 2014
Where?: Cartagena de Indias

An offshoot of the famous Hay Festival in Britain, Hay Cartagena brings world-renowned authors to the Caribbean city celebrated by Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

Alliougana Festival of the Word
When next?: November 2013
Where?: Cultural Centre, Little Bay

Montserrat (population 5,200) is probably the smallest Caribbean territory to host its own literary festival — with a vivacious energy out of all proportion to its size.

Bim Literary Festival and Book Fair
When next?: May 2014
Where?: venues around Barbados

Launched in 2012, this biennial festival is a newcomer to the literary circuit — but organisers include the editorial team behind BIM magazine, one of the Caribbean’s landmark literary journals.