Word of mouth (March/April 2016)

Dry season is now literature season in the Caribbean, with half a dozen festivals bringing writers to readers, plus a new exhibition in London captures the heyday of lovers rock

  • Photo by Nagornyi / shutterstock.com
  • Photo by Chris Steele Perkins, courtesy 198 Gallery

Story season

With half a dozen literary festivals in as many weeks, the Caribbean dry season has turned into a celebration of books, writers and stories. Philip Sander explains

Up and down the Antillean chain, the month of April brings glorious dry-season weather — bright, breezy days and a profusion of flowers, despite the drought — along with Easter, the Hindu spring festival Holi, and an entire season celebrating Caribbean books and writers, with six different literary festivals in as many weeks. Yes, you read that right: whatever you may have heard to the contrary, there’s a growing audience for fiction and poetry in the Caribbean, and in recent years literature festivals have sprung up far and wide, with most of them scheduled for the month and a half before the rains arrive.

So, you’re a book lover craving encounters with your favourite Caribbean authors and possessing unlimited air miles: how do you plan your itinerary? Start in St Croix at the end of April, where the University of the Virgin Islands — longtime home of the journal The Caribbean Writer — hosts the annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival (21 to 23 April), which debuted in 2015. Headliners this year include Jamaica Kincaid, sci-fi writer Tobias Buckell (profiled on page 42 of this issue), and India-born Salman Rushdie.

Then hop south to Port of Spain, where the NGC Bocas Lit Fest runs over the April-ending long weekend (27 April to 1 May). With more than a hundred events over five days, including the award ceremony for the coveted OCM Bocas Prize, the programme boasts something for everybody with an interest in books, stories, and ideas: readings, performances, debates, workshops, and the finals of T&T’s National Poetry Slam. Some 2016 highlights: events commemorating the ninety-fifth birthday of Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, the role of cricket in Caribbean culture, and the influence of Shakespeare on today’s Caribbean writers.

Pause for breath, then head to Barbados in mid-May, where the biennial BIM Literary Festival (12 to 14 May) celebrates the country’s fiftieth anniversary of Independence through the words of its writers. The Anguilla Lit Fest (19 to 22 May) isn’t far behind: a “literary jollification” that makes the most of its idyllic setting on the thirty-five-square-mile island, with daytime readings and discussions and evening parties, where rum cocktails get writerly tongues wagging. Luckily, the next stop is just one island (and a twenty-minute ferry ride) away. The St Martin Book Fair (2 to 4 June), marking its fourteenth year in 2016, is a boundary-crossing event in more ways than one. With events on both sides of the territorial line separating Dutch Sint Maarten from French Saint-Martin, and a roster of writers who cheerfully straddle the borders between genres and languages, it’s a chance to re-consider what you think you know about Caribbean letters.

Our tour ends, appropriately, in Jamaica, and the laid-back seaside community of Treasure Beach, home of the longest-running literature festival of the bunch. The Calabash International Literary Festival (3 to 5 June), now staged biennially, is as famous for its iere vibe as for the stellar authors who grace the stage.

What do all these festivals have in common? An intimate scale, for one thing, appropriate to their island settings. Big-name authors mingle with newcomers, and there’s no room for anyone to be aloof. What else? Their extraordinary creative energy, fuelled by a surge of writing talent. A new crop of Caribbean writers are telling stories never before heard, in unfamiliar voices. And at these festivals of literature, you can listen to them up close.


Loving kind

David Katz visits a new London exhibition recalling the glory days of lovers rock

As I walk along the broad expanse of Railton Road, a lesser thoroughfare that links Brixton’s backstreets with leafier Herne Hill, I can’t help thinking how much the Brixton end has changed. Recent arrivals include an upmarket wine parlour and an exclusive European hairdresser — the changing demographics due to the unstoppable march of gentrification. Brixton Market may now be overrun by privileged provincial kids on the weekends, but Railton Road has great resonance for London’s Caribbean communities, since there’s a lot of important history here.

Railton Road was once known as the “frontline,” a site of hostile police action against local black youth. The Race Today collective was based here then, in a squatted building (where C.L.R. James lived out the last of his days), and there were shebeens, Rastafarian eateries, and Caribbean drinking dens at different junctions, most of which have left no traces. Thankfully, the Herne Hill end remains somewhat unreconstructed, and after passing by Montego Close and Marcus Garvey Way, just below the twin towers of a public housing estate, it is a relief to find the 198 Gallery and Learning Centre remaining true to its principles.

The gallery was founded in 1988 to support emerging British artists of Caribbean heritage, whose work explores the complex issues of an emerging cultural identity. Michael McMillan, an artist and playwright of Vincentian origin, best known for his acclaimed West Indian Front Room installation, has exhibited at the 198 before (most notably with Body: The Beauty Shop, which recreated a Caribbean hairdresser’s). His present offering, Rockers, Soulheads, and Lovers: Sound Systems Back in Da Day (18 March to 28 May), explores the legacy of the “blues dance,” the musical and social institution that has been an integral part of the black British experience since the Windrush era of the 1950s.

Speaking at a recent day-long sound system symposium held at Goldsmiths, McMillan explained that, during the 1970s, black British music fans fell into two strictly divided camps: you had the “rockers,” devoted to roots reggae, and the “soulheads,” who listened exclusively to soul; since the former was largely male and the latter largely female, the two genres collided in lovers rock, a black British invention that allowed couples a better chance to get together on the dance floor, ultimately breaking down barriers of gender and race.

At the heart of the exhibition, archive photographs of local sound systems, with their massive “house of joy” speakers, are complemented by the testimony of several practitioners, bringing back sweet memories of a bygone age, while a wall of album covers puts their playlists back into focus. It all serves to remind us of the days when Soferno B and Frontline International held regular all-nighters down the road, often in squatted premises — an era when Railton Road, and Brixton more generally, were classified as distinctly “undesirable.” Yet, even if “blues dances” are no longer regularly held on Railton Road, the success of the annual Brixton Splash proves that sound system culture still thrives in Brixton, making Rockers, Soulheads, and Lovers more celebratory than anything else.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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