A Family Affair at Calabash: Lit Fest hosts First Family of Kenyan Letters

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

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This year's Calabash International Literary Festival, Friday, May 30 - Sunday, June 1, at Jakes in Treasure Beach, will welcome Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the famed Kenyan writer whose richly imaginative and politically aware novels have become classics in world literature. But he will not be coming alone. As it happens, Ngugi wa Thiong'o has been working hard at the ensuring a remarkable future for African writing by fathering two up-and-coming writers, the novelist Wanjuki wa Ngugi and the poet and novelist Mukoma wa Ngugi. The three writers will share the stage for the very first time anywhere at Calabash 2014 reading from their recent works and representing the rich and expanding tradition in African writing.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o belongs to a small and impressive group of writers whose fictional work is matched easily by their contribution to larger socio-political and intellectual thoughts about the world in which we live. Ngugi's most recent books include two volumes of a planned three-part memoir, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter (2012), which trace the development of this fiery and often controversial writer who famously declared in 1986 that he would devote himself to writing exclusively in his native language, Gikuyu. It has been widely recognised that the three novels by Ngugi that are in fact translations from the original Gikuyu, namely A Devil on the Cross, Matigari and Wizard of the Crow constitute some of the most innovative examples of modern fiction coming out of Africa. This prolific author has never slowed down in his scholarly and literary output and his work continues to shape areas of academic scholarship like post-colonial literature.

The son and daughter of Ngugi who have discovered their own passion for writing are creating their own reputations for trying to chart the experience of Africans on the continent and abroad. Wanjiku's wa Ngugi's debut novel, The Fall of Angels, leaps with lively abandon into the world of the thriller with a New York-based soccer mom caught up in a complex of human trafficking and other criminal intrigues that has her travelling around the world to battle the bad guys. Wanjiku wa Ngugi is credited for the multiple twists and turns in a plot that has excited readers of the genre and others. Wanjuki now resides in Helsinki, Finland and her appearance at Calabash has been facilitated by funding from Carib Export.

Tellingly, her older brother Mukoma wa Ngugi appears to have found a productive niche in his crime novels that expand the genre in important ways. Mukoma, in many interviews, shows himself to be a serious scholar, activist and thinker on matters pertaining to world culture and the position of Africa. He has published several books already including a highly praised collection of poems, Hurling Words at Consciousness. He is also the author, most recently, of the novels, Black Star Nairobi (Melville, 2013), and Nairobi Heat (Melville, 2011). He has been shortlisted for both the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing and the Penguin Prize for African Writing. In 2013, the internationally respected New African Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential Africans.

"What excites me most about this line-up," says Calabash director Kwame Dawes, "is the way it demonstrates so many critical dimensions to African writing all contained in one family. First, there are the dynamics of language and translation represented in the father, the emergence of internationally positioned women writers from Africa represented in the daughter, and finally, the genre-traversing innovations that we see in the son. Ngugi wa Thiong'o is an icon in African writing, so in this instance, we are triply blessed to have him at Calabash with his gifted literary family."

Calabash is made possible by the generous support of the CHASE Fund, Carib Export and The Jamaica Tourist Board and is hosted at Jakes in Treasure Beach. The British Council and US State Department will also facilitate the appearance of authors at the festival.

Oranges and Mangoes and the 2014 OCM Bocas Prize [pic: Robert antoni2]

By Stephanie McKenzie

The NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which took place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, April 23-April 27, was an impeccably organised affair which brought together top Caribbean writers and thinkers. What could be called the climax of the event took place Saturday evening at Trinidad's Academy for the Performing Arts when the prestigious OCM Bocas Prize (and Hollick Arvon Prize) was awarded.

The OCM Bocas Prize includes an award of US$10,000 and has two stages. First, panels of distinguished judges vet three genres separately - poetry, fiction, and non-fiction - and determine the best books in each category. Next, the chairs of the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction panels, joined by the overall chair and vice-chair of the prize, form a final prize jury to select the overall winner from the three genre winners. If it sounds confusing, it is.

The announcement of the award was preceded by short pre-recorded videos by the three winners. Poetry winner Lorna Goodison spoke about her book of poetry, Oracabessa, saying that "a lot of the poems are informed by an engagement with fine art" (Goodison is also a painter) and with outsiders, "people who don't really belong". Robert Antoni discussed his novel As Flies to Whatless Boys, noting that he didn't wish to write a strict historical novel but, rather, an intimate family portrait. Further, he said, "it's up to us to take our place on the world stage," meaning, as he explained later, that Caribbean writers have to continue raising the bar, to demand the best of themselves and of each other. "It's the only way our art will grow," Antoni later commented. Speaking of his award-winning and nominated non-fiction work Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies, Kei Miller indicated he would always think of himself as a Caribbean writer and said "that's where my imagination resides". Miller's recording ended with beautiful lines that appear in a powerful reflection on homophobic violence in Jamaica, a piece he later read from on the last day of the festival.

The presenter of the OCM Bocas, no less than Linton Kwesi Johnson, indicated "the selection was no easy task" and said he had been a judge only once before, for the Whitbread award. He described Antoni's novel as a "humouress and poignant tall tale" and Goodison's Oracabessa as a "fine accomplished collection of poems which was written at the height of her craft and which complements her memoir Harvey River. He underscored the power and importance of Kei Miller's writing and vision.

When Antoni was called to the stage as winner, he thanked his publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, as well as fellow writers Goodison and Miller. He recounted that Goodison had told him the day before "you can't compare oranges and mangos." Antoni's acceptance speech was brief. He then announced he would split the award money between all three writers.

Antoni's decision was unprecedented but seemed to make perfect sense. What poet in the Caribbean, or anywhere else for that matter, could go up against Goodison at this point? Fittingly, perhaps, Oracabessa is dedicated to maybe the only person who could, Derek Walcott, who was the inaugural OCM Bocas Prize winner in 2011 and in attendance at the ceremony, as were former winners Earl Lovelace and Monique Roffey. And who has surpassed Miller for challenging the damaging silence around untold stories and truths?

In a later interview with me, Antoni claimed that Bocas is the best thing to have happened to Trinidad. Attendance at the festival makes quick sense of his claim. The festival is full of workshops, interviews, readings, and lectures, and includes a wide range of considerations and topics - from the literary to historical to sociological and much more. Certainly much of the festival's success is due to the work of the festival's programme director, Nicholas Laughlin, who creates, with the work of many others, a tightly penetrating schedule of some of the best minds. This year, the programme included options as diverse as a stimulating interview conducted by scholar Gabrielle Hosein with Guyanese-American writer Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman (a groundbreaking work about social history and family which focuses on Bahadur's great-grandmother who came to Guyana from India in 1903), just recently nominated for the George Orwell Prize, and a debate on crime and violence in Trinidad.

However, Antoni also made it clear again that three genres can't be put together in the same prize category and suggested maybe Bocas could perhaps rethink how and also when it gives the award. His ideas prompted a reflection of Samantha John's words, host of the Bocas announcement ceremony, who indicated that the Bocas prizes are not national prizes but prizes which seek to recognise the Caribbean as a family.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Antoni's As Flies to Whatless Boys focuses on and grows out of a consideration of family. The backdrop of the novel is 19th-century German inventor John Adolphus Etzler who created a Tropical Emigration Society (TES), circa 1845, in London and travelled to Trinidad with poor families and idealists in the hope of setting up a socialist utopian community.

Antoni referred in interview to Etzler as a great visionary but indicated that not much had been written about the man who attempted to invent machines run by Mother Nature. Antoni spent 15 years researching and writing the novel and accumulated much information about Etzler, though it is the William Tucker family (part of Antoni's own ancestry) who emigrates to Trinidad with other members of the TES which provides the real core of the work.

When asked about his own background and upbringing, Antoni offered one word: "confused". He said he was born in Detroit by mistake to parents originally from Trinidad. When Antoni was two, he moved back to Trinidad and, then, to the Bahamas. Around the age of 14, Antoni started returning to Trinidad, where he still has family, and, at one point, lived there for a couple of years. He was educated in the US, lived in Barcelona for several years, as well as Miami, and presently resides in New York. When asked if he felt if he were part of the writing community in Trinidad, Antoni was definite. "Yes. Certainly. They are my community." He recalled that Earl Lovelace, who introduced him at the launch of As Flies to Whatless Boys in Trinidad, has always insisted on Antoni's Caribbeanness. Antonti claimed his major influences are William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison and Jean Rhys.

Amongst other publications and literary accomplishments, in 1991, Antoni published his first novel, Divina Trace, for which he was awarded, in 1992, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first novel. In 1997, he published his second novel, Blessed is the Fruit, and in 2005, his third, Carnival. When asked what he was working on at the moment, Antoni replied, "Not a thing."

Attending this year's NGC Bocas Lit Fest, including the ceremony which announced the OCM Bocas Prize, revealed not only the wealth of talent but also the vibrant interlocking arts of the Caribbean. I often wonder if people normalise what is presented at great Caribbean festivals, because this does not happen the world over. Maybe the Caribbean is simply a place of extremes and part of this means that there is an astonishing and disproportionate number of extremely fine writers, artists and intellectuals.

Only in such a fine family, could such fine fruit be judged for such sport.

Dr Stephanie McKenzie is an associate professor, English Programme, Grenfell Campus, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada.

Fruitful PEN America World Voices festival

The organisers of the fabulous PEN America World Voices Festival of International Literature can take a collective bow for the event's successful 10th staging. The festival, which took place in New York City April 28, 2014 to May 4, 2014, followed the PEN American Centre's tradition of highlighting freedom of expression and the fostering of cross-cultural dialogue among writers, artists and citizens around the globe and saw over 100 writers from 30 nations participating in a wide range of activities including readings, debates, one-on-one conversations, participatory workshops and performances throughout the city.

The annual Pen World Voices Festival is the brainchild of celebrated author Salman Rushdie, then-president of the PEN American Centre, who, in 2004, had the idea of initiating an international literature festival in New York City - something which hadn't existed before - an event that would bring audiences together with writers from around the world, offering first-hand cultural and political experience from different countries and offering a vantage point from which to develop a deeper understanding of the intellectual landscape around the world. It is the only international literary festival in the US, and the only festival with a human rights focus and, over the course of the last 10 years, has presented over 1,500 writers and artists from 78 countries, speaking 56 languages.

This year's 10th anniversary theme was 'On the Edge' and got underway, despite the inclement weather, with a series of short politically focused speeches by prominent international writers at the full-to-capacity Great Hall at Cooper Union. Highlights, for me, were outgoing chairman Rushdie's quietly passionate speech, which addressed the parliamentary election in India and the recent efforts in the country to suppress speech; the Syrian poet Adonis, who is annually considered one of the favorites to win the Nobel Prize, and who read his work in Arabic, his voice vibrating with fury while a translation of it played on the large screens behind him; Rushdie's successor, author Colm Tóibin's stirring essay about living as a gay man in Barcelona during and after the time of General Franco's death; and the Tanzanian political cartoonist Gado, a lovely man who was staying at my hotel and who introduced himself and engaged my fellow Caribbean writers and I in thoughtful conversation in the hotel lobby later that night. His presentation at the opening was especially trenchant, speaking in concert with a slide show of his provocative work, which pillories everything from the storied Chinese investment in Africa (of particular interest to this Jamaican who is concerned with the future of Goat Islands) to racism.

I was singularly thrilled to be asked to be part of this year's festival, which included two other writers from the Caribbean region, Barbara Jenkins of Trinidad and Tobago and Joanne Hillhouse of Antigua. We were accommodated at hipster-chic hotel, the Marlton, smack-dab in the Village, and the experience was delightful. Authors can be some of the most negatively competitive people you'll ever meet, and so, it didn't have to play out that way. You know I keep it real, so believe me when I tell you: the time spent bonding with these ladies was amazing and I left feeling not only more a part of the contemporary Caribbean woman writers' sorority, but more importantly, that I'd made two friends for life. I'd actually met Barbara two years ago at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and she'd interviewed me for the festival podcast. She was generous and gracious so I knew she was somebody I could get along with. Joanne I'd heard of but had never met. Thank God, she too turned out to be engaging and warm. Women writers, we agreed, didn't need the unnecessary nastiness and competition. And so, over coffee by the fireplace (New York was an unseasonably blustery 40 degrees) we shared our thoughts on topics ranging from world and regional politics to pop culture. How refreshing these talks were and mentally stimulating! These women are seriously intelligent with so much to offer. Barbara (Sic Transit Wagon), by the way, was the inaugural Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize and Joanne, this year's second-prize winner (Musical Youth) of the Burt Award for young adult and children. Joanne's previous books are Fish Outta Water, The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!

I know, serious firepower, right?

So, we were brought in to participate in the annual Literary Safari, an apparent high point of the festival at the Wesbeth Centre for the Arts, a non-profit housing and commercial complex dedicated to providing affordable living and working space for artists located in the West Village. This year the safari saw 19 writers paired with 19 hosts in their private apartments, for simultaneous readings in intimate salon-style settings with itinerant audiences who, armed with maps, checked out readers of particular interest to them in the various apartments whose front doors were adorned with yellow balloons to indicate where readings were being held, and asked questions of the writers after the 15-minute readings. My hosts were Pia and Bobby Harden, a genetically-blessed interracial couple (she's a TV writer and he's a musician) who fed me after the readings and engaged me in convo as though we were old friends.

Readings are tricky. You never know what kind of audience you'll get so you need to have rehearsed reading a few select passages as options until you size up the audience and determine which selection is suitable. I was slightly nervous because it would be my first international audience, completely outside of my sphere of reference. When I read in Trinidad in 2012, at least I knew they were Caribbean people who'd understand my accent, where I'm coming from, etc. Also, an even bigger fear: suppose nobody showed up to hear me read!

But I needn't have had butterflies: both my sessions went swimmingly. The festival had asked posted excerpts of our work on their website and readers were able to get a taste of what we each brought to the table and make informed decisions, therefore, about whose sessions they wanted to attend. I ended up reading my short story Sugar both times, and the interaction after the readings was stimulating and refreshing. (I have to shout out Ifeona Fulani, the Jamaican-born NYU professor and author of Seasons of Dust, and most recently, Ten Days in Jamaica, who made it to my second reading, and who I drove myself crazy trying to figure out where I knew her face from. The support was truly appreciated.)

After the festival I spent another fun-filled week in the Big Apple, with another woman writer and visual artist who is, as we Jamaicans say, my "bona fide", my friend, the phenomenally gifted Jacqueline Bishop. But my sojourn in New York has ended; all good things, unfortunately, must. It was an experience I'll remember for a long time. Kudos, again, to Jakab Orsos, the festival's director, and his team of volunteers for an impeccably executed event that underlined what we know to be true: love of the written word is what makes us one. Thanks to my liaison Beth Weinstein, who worked tirelessly with me to organise my flights, my limo pick-up, my super-comfy accommodations. Thanks so much, guys. Long live PEN America! Long live literature!

- Sharon Leach

Bookends Coordinator

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