"Imagine your own future, or someone else will do it for you"
The University of the Virgin Islands held a two-day webinar on July 18 and July 19, 2020 to launch Volume 34 of its annual literary publication, The Caribbean Writer; it also held the space for the annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival.
The theme, Diasporic Rhythms: Interrogating the Past, Re-imagining the Future was anchored by writer of children's books and the Editor-In-Chief of The Caribbean Writer, Alscess Lewis-Brown. As segment host, writer and storyteller, Elaine Jacobs, complimented the organizers in the re-imagination of the annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival as a teleconference.
On the first day, July 18, the rhythms and the past came early in the programme in the form of Calypso with a discussion on the forthcoming book "God, The Press and Uriah Butler", by its author and the first speaker for the event, Calypso King Hollis, "The Mighty Chalkdust" Liverpool. Tubal Uriah Butler was a spiritual, labour and political leader in Trinidad and Tobago who participated in decisive public issues between the 1930s and 1950s. Hollis views the mission of Butler as incomplete, and this book serves to open discussion about the man, his work, and the role of media in bending the public view. Butler himself was given great honours during his lifetime. He holds the country's highest honour, the Trinity Cross. To show the magnitude of respect, the North/ South highway on Trinidad is named for him; while the East/West highway is called the Churchill-Roosevelt after the 1940-1945 war years world leaders of the United Kingdom and the USA.
The Speculative Fiction workshop featured writers Cadwell Turnbull whose most recognised work is the novel "The Lesson" and Tobias Buckell whose Halo novel was listed on NY Times Bestseller List for Paperback Trade.
This workshop was more a discussion between the two authors who interestingly spent parts of their young lives in the USVI and also fielding questions from the audience. When asked how they believed the Caribbean experience could fit into persistent themes in science fiction, both agreed that living on an island was akin to living in the shadows of an empire, and facing immanent alien invasions. Such invasions can be viewed from the past with the migration of Central American peoples through the islands- as pursued and pursuers - to the arrival of the Europeans and the peoples they introduced. For the present, these invasions can be interpreted as tourism and expatriate workers.
Turnbull and Buckwell also insisted that works of science fiction was an an opportunity for Caribbean people to imagine a future of our own. Buckell retold his feelings of dismay when he read a serious passage about islanders building a spacecraft, and realized that the audience found it funny and even ridiculous. Hurt, he did not read that passage for many years until he was invited to the Caribbean. The response of the Barbadian audience to the same text was understanding and appreciation. Caribbean people have no difficulty imagining ourselves as world leaders in any space that we choose to occupy. For this, Turnbull and Buckell insist that if you do not imagine your own future, someone else will do it for you. Such imagining seems even more relevant now during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Attendees were invited to visit a blog with a bibliography of Caribbean Science Fiction writers: http://caribbeansf.com/
Canadian university lecturer born in South Africa, Rozena Maart, hosted the workshop Memoir Writing and what she calls Life Writing. In her guidance, Maart urged writers to place themselves at the centre of their stories, but to consider the writing process similar to that of peeling away layers of an onion to discover and to present "what is hidden, what is forbidden and what is repressed".
Maart also encouraged writers to deeply explore the language that they will employ to tell the story in the memoir. She notes that she gave privilege to the patois that she spoke at age eight in her first life story writing project. Maart herself grew up in a world where English and Afrikaans were the official languages where she lived.
Encouraging writers, Maart put forward the position that each individual inherits not only the physical traits and perhaps talents of ancestors, but also their dreams and that it should be among the pieces of evidence that a life writer must research.
Interspersed with the workshops, writers whose works have been published in The Caribbean Writer read their stories and poetry. Among them were poets Biko McMillan author of "Writing on Roots" (StCroix); Timothy Hodges (Anguilla); Andre Bagoo (Trinidad and Tobago); Corrine Binnins (Woodside, St Mary, Jamaica) and Joshua Nelson (India).
Short story writers and novelists included Natalie Corthesy (Jamaica); Mary Rykov (Canada originally from Puerto Rico); Joanne C Hillhouse "Musical Youth" (Antigua and Barbuda).
The featured speaker for the second day was Caribbean storyteller Paul Keens Douglas (Trinidad and Tobago), who encouraged writers not to think about conforming to the language as written in texts, but to use the language as a tool for for real creativity. He even went to say that he may wish to recite one verse of a poem and dance the second verse. He acknowledged being greatly influenced by the writing of Louise Bennett Coverley whose Anancy Stories written in patois were published in the 1940s in The Daily Gleaner in the newspaper of record in Jamaica.
The poetry workshop was led by writer Ana Portnoy (Puerto Rico) with two writers from the USVI Tiphanie Yanique "How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories" and Richard Georges "Epipheneia".
Yanique, read two of her poems which led to a question of whether she was suggesting male dominance. One poem was about a bull awaiting a mate and the other about an island, which was referred to in the feminine. Yanique said that each poem was a separate reflection on issues relating to the sexes. Georges read from his award winning work about the effect of Hurricane Irma on the Virgin Islands which upheld the view that devastation does not mean destruction.
Content writer and blogger, Ellie Hirsh, led the workshop on Writing for Children and books that are targeted to young audiences.
Charlene Abramson Joseph (USVI) read her book, The Vienna Cake Mystery where the guilty has to be found out and restitution done to restore good order.
Winnifred "Oyoko" Loving (USVI) read her book "My Name Is Freedom" which is conversations of self-awareness and encouragement between children and the older members of their family. The book creates an opportunity for the discussion to continue in the minds of the readers.
Publisher, Denene Milner, gave a background to her mission of being a publisher for Black children's stories written by and illustrated by persons in the Black community. Milner's mission is to publish books that place the humanity of contemporary black children at the centre. She read from Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut written by Derrick Brown and illustrated by Gordon C James. The book highlights the affirmations and well-being that flows with a boy's visit to the barber shop.
Other readers who were listed included Kirk Ramdath (Canada and T&T); Shenny De Los Angeles (Dom Rep).
View the full programme of the webinar at the link below.