Literary festivals are a shock to the system. The Bocas Festival was particularly stimulating for me because I travelled so far, for such a short period of time. I arrived late at night in the heat and dark and was plunged into downtown Port of Spain, into music and dance and eating outside in the street.
Over the next two days I sat in talks, and listened. I also had many conversations. These conversations at Bocas were unusually rich: they explored the difficult history of Trinidad and the Caribbean, the current level of crime and social problems, the many questions around language, the relationship between Britain and the English speaking Caribbean islands, the current state of writing and publishing in the Caribbean. They were exciting conversations, honest and revealing.
It was hard to make sense of everything I heard and everything we discussed. The topics were too profound, too important to make hasty conclusions.
I flew home the long way, via St Lucia and Grenada. I was glad for the time in the air, to think and mull over it all. I could look down on these extraordinary islands, set in the vast sea. The actual islands, and my experiences at Bocas, seemed like a series of fragments, like the fretwork on the old houses in Port of Spain.
There was the moment Marlon James said that he hadn’t wanted to write a novel that was a failure of nerve. He said he had let go of the book in his head and made it come out on the page. I wrote down his words, told myself to remember them, to mark them, and to live by them.
There was the conversation with three women at the post awards gathering, about Jean Rhys and her marginalised place in Dominican society: she had been too white, too full of social aspirations. And so she had fled to London where she found herself yet again marginalised: her accent too odd, the wrong class. I had missed the event at Bocas about Wide Sargasso Sea at 50, but there, in the beautiful garden, under floodlit trees, we had our own panel discussion.
And there was the hour sitting by the docks with two Caribbean artists, the ship Port-of-Spain behind us, eating callaloo and coo coo. I listened as they spoke about their feelings about the history of slavery in the island. In that conversation, time collapsed and it became clear how recent this history was. It is still in minds and architecture and in writing and art.
Later we walked through the bamboo cathedral, the plants reaching up and over us, and we talked about future work, and the conversations and the new smells and tastes made everything seem possible.
And then, my last memory: before the extraordinary poetry slam where the audience was over five hundred, where they shouted and laughed and applauded (imagine that in Britain), we sat in a garden outside Port of Spain, watching humming birds come for nectar and fight over territory. We talked about the arts in the Caribbean, about how with confidence and self belief comes the authentic voice, and with that voice comes confidence and self belief.
All of this was profoundly affecting. More than usual. To travel is to defamiliarise. When I go away I jolt myself out of my own world, both exterior and interior. But this didn’t quite feel like that. It felt as though some of what I had met in Trinidad, I almost knew, or anticipated.
I think I know why: as the two days passed, I realised that over the years I had read more Caribbean writing than I realised. I had read (and later taught) Jean Rhys. I had consumed Walcott’s poetry. I had read Naipaul. I had also had a period of time in my twenties when I was obsessed by Roy Heath’s vital Georgetown trilogy, set in Guyana. And then there was the Caribbean poetry I studied at University. All of this writing, all of this utterly brilliant writing, these world-class sentences, had all come from these islands.