Afua Hirsch
Afua Hirsch ©

Marlon James

The British Council in partnership with Bocas Lit Fest supported the participation of Afua Hirsch, at the 2018 staging of the festival from 25-29 April. Afua Hirsch is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. She is a columnist for The Guardian Newspaper, and a presenter on current affairs debate shows The Pledge on Sky News and Talk on CNN. She is the author of Brit(ish): on race, identity and belonging, published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape, and winner of the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Prize. Here is a brief documentation of her experience. 

On the long flight from London to the 8th Bocas Literary Festival, I was reading a recent interview with Tony Martin. I had long been familiar with the famous Trinidadian historian’s work on Marcus Garvey, but was catching up with his more recent analyses of Obama, the American far right, and contemporary Black Nationalism. It recalled Stokely Carmichael’s work in The Myths of Coalition, interrogating the presumption that for historically oppressed minorities to enter into mainstream organisations represents true progress. Both of their famous works could easily have been written today.

It got me thinking about the enduring influence of Trinidadian thought and culture - the perfect context for arriving into the midst of its celebrated hub at Bocas; the Caribbean’s biggest festival of words, stories and ideas. The theme for this year’s festival was “island stories”, celebrating voices not just from the Caribbean, but islands across the world as diverse as Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Britain.

My first session on Friday 27th April - a one on one with the great Bocas founder Marina Salandy Brown - gave me an opportunity to talk about my book Brit(ish) with someone who understands both Caribbean and British identities, and, as a former BBC journalist, has been part of media as well as literary spaces. It also revealed the audience’s perspective on identity and belonging, through a lively set of questions about race, Empire, narrative and how to write and tell these stories - which for me, offered a first glimpse into what others at Bocas are engaged with, in their own thought and work. 

On Sunday 29th April I joined a panel with Muli Amaye, Anthony Joseph, Debbie Jacob, chaired by with Alison Donnell, discussing “Reckoning with identity in the age of Trump and Brexit, and the Caribbean’s contribution to global culture”. It was a lively discussion by three very different writers; with Anthony’s incredible work on the life and love of Lord Kitchener, Muli’s captivating reading of a young black girl in Manchester, and Debbie’s analysis of America’s ignorance of the contribution and importance of Caribbean influence in the contemporary US. The audience - in line with the fearless atmosphere of the event - asked challenging and thought-provoking questions ranging from Brexit to the role of the British Council in post-colonial discourse.

BOCAS 2018 panel discussion.
BOCAS 2018 panel discussion.  ©

Marlon James

One on one with Marina Salandy-Brown
One on one with Marina Salandy-Brown. ©

Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch with Kei Miller at BOCAS Lit Fest 2018
Afua Hirsch with Kei Miller at BOCAS Lit Fest 2018.  ©

Marlon James

Chancellor Hill, Trinidad and Tobago
Chancellor Hill, Trinidad and Tobago ©

Afua Hirsch

Bake and Shark
"I made it to Maracas Beach early one morning for a pre-crowd breakfast of Bake & Shark beside the waves - a uniquely Trini meal that I will never forget!" ©

Afua Hirsch

In between my own events, I immersed myself in poetry - of which there were rich pickings at Bocas this year. Raymond Antrobus, the British Jamaican poet, delivered a blistering performance of his work about the cultural experience of deafness in a black British family, and “audio supremacy”. “Dear Hearing World,” he said, “I’ve left earth in search of sounder orbits.”

Richard Georges, the British Virgin Island poet and activist, read The Hanging of Arthur George - a poem about particularly brutal plantation owner whose life I researched for my own book, and whom Georges brought to life from the perspective of Prosper, the slave for whose murder George was ultimately hanged, although not for the reasons often claimed. Georges’ activism on the status of BVI - still a territory of the UK - resonated strongly with me and my work on Empire and amnesia in Britain.

The brilliant Kaveh Akbar explored poetry, language and the divine in a fascinating workshop, and read from his own work in a session with Jamaican poet Shara McCallum. Kaveh’s performances are increasingly attracting a new audience to poetry in America, and have to be seen to be truly experienced; he read from some of his published poems in his book Wolf, but also new material, like “Vines” - “When I saw God, I used the wrong pronoun…”

The Trinidadian writer Sharon Millar talked about identity and authenticity - subjects close to my heart - in a heartfelt session exploring the anxiety arising out of the history of islands like Trinidad; the complex relationship between race, history and diaspora, the pain of writing about racism from within your own community, and the challenges of navigating all these questions as a white Trinidadian. “I am white Creole… Britain has been the shadow under which I have been raised,” said Millar. “I’m somehow seen as a representative of Britain, a country I don’t really know. It’s ironic for me. It seems if you want to write, you have to go back to the Empire. You have to go back to the place that caused the hurt.”

These perspectives fed so richly into my own work on identity and narrative, opening up a plethora of Caribbean voices who I have so far only read and followed from afar.

Aside from the festival I wanted to get a sense of ordinary life in Port of Spain. I walked up to Lady Chancellor Hill - joining the throng of office workers on their evening walk, cycle or run for panoramic views of the city and the coast. 

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