Literary Festivals: Culture Mining or Culture Making?
(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, June 2012)
The summer months are a hot season for those in the business of culture. The literary festival, now a signature event in many islands, has become an attractive way for book connoisseurs, culture enthusiasts and local businesses to capitalize on their imdividual and collective interests. For the past several years, Trinidad’s NGC Bocas Literary Festival, the Bim Lit Fest in Barbados amd Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival have lured the most influential names in the region’s literary, academic and performance fields from all around the world and juxtaposed their gravitas with the promising and rejuvenating work of local and mostly underrecognized writers, thinkers and artists.
They owe their presence, surely, to Jamaica’s Calabash Festival, begun in 2001 by Colin Channer and a few other notable Jamaican writers, who after ten years, were forced to indefinitely suspend the event because of financial troubles. And while Calabash managed to resurface for Jamaica’s 50th Independence anniversary celebrations with no clear plans to stay on, still more islands push the literary culture campaign, with the example of “Anguilla’s Literary Jollification,” held in May. The contradiction between the ever-emerging interest in the business of creative arts and the struggle to keep these events afloat with money and public interest leads many informed and lay critics to ask the question: What’s the point? Some people are attempting to answer that very question.
Following the NGC Bocas Festival, a scathing op-ed in Trinidad’s Guardian newspaper definitely made some of us “culture makers” squirm in our seats just a little bit. Raymond Ramcharitar’s indictment from the May 2 piece entitled “Caribbean Literature: Publishable or Rubbish?” is that no substantive body of literary work can currently be produced in the region, by people living in the West Indies, and that the display of culture embodied in literary festivals is simply a guise for a select few to sustain their social elitism. All in all, Ramcharitar thinks of festivals as another self-congratulatory enterprise with no viable business model and no long-term future: an all-around waste of time.
Alas, this skeptic must have missed the point that people who choose to live and work in arts and culture very rarely approach the field with an eye or gaining massive wealth from their work. Those who gain fame and financial success often do so after years of dedication and labor, reaping their long-deserved rewards for commitment to their craft. The production and consumption of “culture” in the Caribbean has historically been tied more closely to constructions of national identity and pride, reminding West Indians of their complicated and sometimes unfortunate past, while praising the resilience of the human spirit – expressed uniquely in music, literature, dance, and art. Moreover, the majority populattion of African-descended people in the Eastern Caribbean implicitly understand the idea of West Indian culture, particularly literary culture, as an issue of property, ownership and inheritance, reclaiming the discourses of ownership and mastery once long ago endured by their ancestors under slavery.
I return to Ramcharitar’s assertions, then, to pose an important response about the business, financing and publishing dynamics of the culture that is captured and produced in such literary festivals. Access to publishing houses, to in-house editors that are competitive on a global market and to a widespread leisure reading audience across and within the islands must exist for the featured aspiring writers to gain the kind of traction that Caribbean writers in the diaspora have achieved via their massive publishing houses like FSG, Vintage, and others. So Ramcharitar is not entirely wrong. In fact, in this regard he may be quite right.
The question of literacy and literary enthusiasm remains the key to address a question about where and how to find investors to revitalize a West Indian literary publishing domain. Regional academic publishing houses survive on the necessity of the curriculum and, in this way, they become a public service that justify investments. However, most creative works are published under very small presses, and now self-publishing becomes a more popular route with the ease and low cost of digital technology. Ramcharitar cites two presses in his article, Peepal Tree Press based in England and Lexicon Press out of Trinidad that have great potential to man the publishing ship and consolidate the stellar writing being produced in the region to counter what he sees as messy and problematic images of the West Indies perpetuated in the Diaspora writings on metropolitan presses. However, the issue is much larger and complex than the publishing and writing end of the business. What about the reading part? Who are these writers producing work for? Who are these publishers marketing to? Where will the books go? Who is the reader of the “literary culture”? Who should be attending the “literary festival”?
The concept of the literary festival, much like the music festivals already held in several islands, can become an important site for building a tourism market. In many islands like Dominica, it has gained much credit in the area of social and civic engagement by building programs and competitions that reach out into the community and make every level of the social landscape understand that a literary culture exists. But in my experience with research and observation of such festivals elsewhere, too much emphasis is based on having the thing exist and not on what to do with it. So many workshops on how to be a writer of various genres and so many guest writers talking about writing their work cast a suspicious shadow over what this work actually means and how it can positively impact our community. The experience of reading literature is the point to tap into if literary festivals want to become a long-standing institution. People should actually understand why and how the literary festival isn’t a show of pomp and circumstance, and can indeed become a way to help shift the culture economy in significant ways. In Britain, a national reading campaign has been successful in reviving attitudes towards literacy and literature across socio-economic classes, while successfully marketing many of their authors in the global marketplace.
Many such festivals in the United States use the language of the “book” festival rather than the “literary” festival. As I reflect on the function of this entity in local and regional communities, I think this distinction is a significant one. The “book” invites curiosity. The “literary” still, particularly considering the historical and socio-political space we occupy, invites skepticism and distance. This is a perfect moment for social entrepreneurs to lock minds with the best thinkers in the “world” of culture, and work towards a solution that draws dividends and not disdain. It’s worth exploring how more attention to reading and finding meaning in texts might be a saving grace for the economic and social future of culture in the Caribbean.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.