Is the Bocas Literary Festival Biased?

Submitted by Dr Kumar Mahabir

It seems that the city of Port of Spain has a no-entry sign for Indo-Trinidadian (Indian) cultural performers. The Fiesta Plaza in MovieTowne does not entertain these kinds of artistes. The Live Music District in the capital also does not showcase cross-over orchestras such as Dil-E-Nadan, T&TEC Gayatones, Karma, and KI & the Band.

The recently-concluded NGC Bocas Literary Festival (April 25-29) is yet another example of discrimination against Indian cultural performers in Port of Spain. The powers residing in Port of Spain have demonstrated their biased belief that (a) Carnival is the only form of national culture in the multi-ethnic society, (b) Indian culture should be pushed behind the Caroni bridge, and (c) at best, Indian culture should be confined to a token show of tassa drumming and an Indian dance. This marginalised treatment is showcased every time at the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA).

The latest published Government CSO population census in 2011 revealed that Indians form the largest ethnic group in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). Yet they constitute less than ten percent (10%) of the attendees and participants at Bocas Lit’ Festivals. It seems as though Indians have silently and individually decided to boycott this biased annual event. The fact that the main event takes place in Port of Spain, where few Indians live, also makes it challenging for Indians to attend.

Bocas Lit’ Fest is a great, exciting extended weekend event of readings, discussions, performances, interviews, workshops, storytelling, music and film screenings. The National Library (NALIS) venue is abuzz with activities mainly with local, regional and international writers, readers, publishers and critics of literary and non-fiction works.

The festival’s founder and director, Marina Salandy-Brown, must be commended for this initiative. Running for eight years, Bocas Lit’ Fest has emerged as the Caribbean’s premier annual literary festival.

On Bocas Lit’ Fest, literary critic Dr Raymond Ramcharitar wrote: “[T]he main concern is not promoting literature or art, but establishing the entitlement of certain people to produce, profit from, and control literary and artistic production, always at the expense of others” (Guardian 25/04/12). I interpret “at the expense of others” to also mean the exclusion of Indian cultural performers.

This year, Bocas Lit’ Fest hosted extempo deliveries and workshop on extempo composition, but no bir-a-ha workshop or renditions. A biraha is an impromptu song composed on any subject, religious or secular. It may break all bounds of propriety and social rules. It may even subvert accepted practices and customs as well as ridicule respected citizens. A biraha is sung as a solo item and may or may not be rendered with a dholak or typical nagara drum. It is accompanied by a dance (ahirwa nach) punctuated by rhythmic, fast footwork performed after each stanza.

Bocas Lit’ also included a workshop on fictional biography and biographical fiction based on the life of calypsonian “Kitchener”, and a documentary film on the calypsonian “Calypso King” from Costa Rica. Again, no workshop or film or discussion or performance on biraha, chutney or pichakare.

Both chutney and pichakare are musical forms indigenous to Trinidad. Chutney soca is a crossover genre incorporating soca elements and Hindi-English, sung with instruments such as the harmonium, dholak and dhantal.

Pichakare is a type of social-commentary song created by Ravi-ji, a spiritual leader, as a counterpoint to political calypsoes which defamed Indian politicians and personalities. It is sung in Trinidad Hindi (Bhojpuri) and English on stage during Phagwa, the Hindu festival of colour and harvest.

This year’s edition of Bocas Lit’ Fest also featured monologues by Carnival Midnight Robbers. The festival did not showcase an excerpt of Ram-leela or any of its characters.

Ram-leela is perhaps the oldest living form of free outdoor folk theatre in the Caribbean. Villager actors play the role of animals, clowns, humans, saints, gods and demons through masks, costumes, props, gestures and body movements. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1992, poet and playwright Derek Walcott spoke glowingly about Ram-leela in Felicity in central Trinidad. In 2008, UNESCO proclaimed Ram-leela as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity which should be protected and promoted.

In all of its dramatic performances, the Bocas Lit’ Fest has never included folktale figures such as Birbal from Trinidad and Sachuli from Guyana. They are the Indian counterparts to the Afro-Caribbean trickster spider, Anansi.

Indian cultural performers and promoters have realised that the culture which they practice and promote will always be marginalised or excluded. They have decided to create their own shows, competitions and literary events.

Towards this end, the NCIC Nagar, led by Deoroop Teemal, has established “An Evening of Readings and Discussions” in Chaguanas. Its third quarterly readings with former journalist and novelist, Ariti Jankie, on Sunday April 22, drew more than 100 guests, mainly Indians.

Spitting fire, Teemal must have blurted, “To hell with Bocas!”

16 thoughts on “Is the Bocas Literary Festival Biased?

  1. Marina Salandy-Browne is one of the most gracious and creative persons working in the arts in the Caribbean and deserves support, rather than some attempt at undermining her efforts with some inward-looking racial nonsense.
    The event is located in Port of Spain because that happens to be the capital; it is mainly a literary festival, are authors of Indian heritage omitted from the event?
    Instead of sitting on the sidelines and firing shots, those artistes who think they have been marginalised should organise and make their presence felt.
    Bocas exposes a weakness in Barbadian popular culture, the absence of a literary dimension. We still celebrate Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin, written 66 years ago. Although it still remains a classic, what else has emerged to fill that gap?
    This lack of a literary dimension was noticeable in the recent appointment of a Poet Laureate, a position that should have been filled for life by Kamu Brathwaite.
    Our leading publications do not promote any literary journalism, and have not done so since the death of Wickham – no book reviews, no short stories, no profiles of authors, etc.
    I remember a friend of mine, a retired UK nurse, once remarked to me that there was very little public reading in Barbados. Travellers on public transport do not read, people in restaurants do not read, people in bars do not read, and the few book shops, including that university bookshop, are very poorly stocked.
    Marina Salandy-Browne, a former BBC current affairs radio producer, is a diamond. Those who want to undermine her efforts should look at themselves.

  2. The Chaguanas alternative cited by Mahabir is also biased, since only Hindu Indians are invited.

  3. Most aspect of Trinidad dominant cultural expression is African. No fuss here. Africans were living in Trinidad long before indentureship. Brasil and urban USA is culturally driven by its black population. Indo-Trinidardians dominate in other spheres of T&T society.

    Culture is dynamic, it evolves organically and it is no respector of political correctness.

    • @fortyacresandamule

      You are agreeing with the author then as he attempts to bring awareness to the ‘imbalance’?

  4. T&T overall dominant culture expression is overwhelmingly african. No political correctness, diversity or mixing will change that. On the issue of the BOCAS festival, I am little surpised by what the author is alluding to, since T&T have produced literary giants of indian extraction like Naipual, Sam Selvon and others.

    I am a big supporter of creating your own platform if you feel left out or underepresented… the same gospel I preached to black people who feel the same way about their underrepresentation in the economic space. And with that I agree with the author.

  5. The wonderful thing about Bocas, apart from the vision and creativity of Marina Salandy-Browne, is that it locates English-speaking literary identity in a space previously abandoned.
    The Naipaul, Selvon, Lamming, Salkey, generation of writers found fame outside the Caribbean, nearly all of them working for the BBC Caribbean Service.
    But what of the present generation of Zadie Smith, Caryl Phillips, et al are they too Caribbean writers? What about Jean Rhys? Where are our big publishing houses?

  6. @David. Yes for sure. By the way, Naipual isn’t so proud of his T&T roots. He has always looked down on T&T and people of african extraction. He thinks he is more english than the english themselves. That’s why Dereck Walcot, and even some intellectuals from the sub-continent were never fond of him.

    @Hal. The only caribbean writer I heard of that had some international buzz a few years back was Marlon James.

  7. fortyacresandamule May 7, 2018 12:47 AM

    But the award-winning Marlon James, who now lives in Connecticut, found fame outside Jamaica. He won his awards outside Jamaica, including in the UK. That is the English-speaking Caribbean dilemma: they want to be compared with the globe, but do not incubate and grow their own cultural agents.
    Think of our poets, essayists, I can go on. Again I must mention Marina Salandy-Browne, who for years produced Melvin Bragg (Lord Bragg) on Start the Week on BBC Radio Four, one of the broadcaster’s major intellectual programmes, who volunteered to return home to contribute when still young, only to be criticised by people not capable of matching what she has forgotten. This is the price the returning son or daughter, in many instances, have to pay. Is it worth it?
    I have already spoken of the absence of literary journalism, but this observation could be applied to many aspects of journalism, maybe with the exception of howling politics. Caribbean journalism is different in many ways, but that is a topic for another conversation, it is certainly not the craft as it is practised in the UK, Canada, US, Australia or any other major English-speaking country.
    Look at the disgraceful way Alan Emtage has been treated by the government of Barbados and by the UWI. I have written about this in in my Notes, for which one of his relatives graciously thanked me when we met in a local restaurant, but why has he not been given a knighthood (in place of some of the old politicians)? Why has he not been made an honorary professor? Why did it take BBC Radio Four to bring his achievements to a world audience?
    Look no further than how we treat Elombe Mottley, our most outstanding living cultural historian, a man who had he been living in the UK would have had a university chair and would have won an award.
    I will end with this: after the 2008 global financial crisis, and the largely poor reporting, with the support of my managing director, Caspar deBono, I approached City University with a suggestion for a MA degree in Financial journalism. My idea was that after about five years all the leading young intake of financial journalists would have been graduates of the course. I also made a similar suggestion to UWI at about the same time. After a decade they have not had the decency to reply. The City University course is progressing by leaps and bounds.
    But it is the Bajan disease, pouring opprobrium on their own, while celebrating others. When I tell people that the Bajan self-worth is summed up in the phrase: Don’t mind he, man; I know he, he ain’t nuttin’ – and explain what it means, the English find it difficult to believe. But it is a lingering cultural memory from slavery. It is now part of our DNA.

  8. Why are Indians imitating the Africans, “Is it a monkey see monkey do syndrome to want to be African, by constant complaining. Leave the people’s thing alone,and concentrate on ours. who want to be African, Shango, Baptist, or Orasha. Who want to compete with the Africans by walking naked, swim by the light house, go right on. Why should we complain about Not being invited. Let them do their thing and we should do ours. Imitate progress not retrogress. .

  9. 50 Cent has defended R Kelly after Spotify announced it was removing the singer from its playlists.
    “Spotify is wrong for what it is doing to artists like R Kelly and XXXtentacion,” the rapper wrote on Twitter.
    R Kelly was removed as part of the streaming service’s new “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct” policy, having been accused of sexual assault on multiple occasions(Quote)

    We cannot allow these terrible people to impose their morality on us. Ban Spotify from the Caribbean.

  10. “T&T overall dominant culture expression is overwhelmingly african.”
    True. Just like in the USA. Look how well things have been working out for the Africans based there.

  11. Dear Hal:

    “But it is the Bajan disease, pouring opprobrium on their own, while celebrating others. When I tell people that the Bajan self-worth is summed up in the phrase: Don’t mind he, man; I know he, he ain’t nuttin’ – and explain what it means, the English find it difficult to believe. But it is a lingering cultural memory from slavery. It is now part of our DNA.”

    In your experience is it more of an Afro Caribbean rather than Bajan disease?

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