By Lavern McDonald
Caribbean News Now contributor
BROOKLYN, USA -- When Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz departs office on December 31 after more than 40 years in public service, he will leave in his wake several institutions – and not least among these is the annual Brooklyn Book Festival -- whose cultural reverberations will be felt for some time to come. Caribbean and Diaspora writers were richly represented in the Sunday, September 22 festival catalogue, which provided more than 80 discrete offerings across 13 spaces radiating from the plaza of Brooklyn Borough Hall.
Many chose to wrap the day at the Church of St Ann and the Holy Trinity where PEN American Center presented “Something to Hide: Writers Against the Surveillance State.”
Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Photo: Kathryn Kirk
The acclaimed Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, who recently penned Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work
wherein she wrote about the everyday violence of the former Haitian dictators, offered a reading of playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1947 essay “We 19” written after his testimony before the United States’ House Un-American Activities Committee. Brecht was the only foreigner among 19 Hollywood leaders who were summoned before the committee. Of the ten who actually appeared, Brecht was the only one who chose not to invoke his Fifth Amendment right and answered questions. Instead of being direct with his responses, Brecht used his sharply ironic intellect to subvert the process. Many in Hollywood were marked and experienced serious constraints on their work stemming from these interrogations.
Danticat was joined by several New York luminaries, including Jewish-Egyptian writer Andre Aciman, US National Security Administration whistleblower Tom Drake, screenwriter Nick Flynn, New York writer Rachel Kushner, WNYC Radio’s Leonard Lopate, PEN’s President Francine Prose and Nation
magazine correspondent and author Jeremy Scahill.
Given a number of recent federal lawsuits challenging breaches of privacy, the emergence of whistleblowers and leakers in sensitive security sectors and what some perceive as a deeply shifting culture and practice around surveillance, the panelists thanked the festival planners for including this precedent-setting forum on the freedom of expression.
While Danticat and company may have been attempting to shed light on events they perceive as encroaching on freedoms in the US, some in the Caribbean region – especially those on St Lucia and Grenada – are perhaps wrestling in a similar vein with recent developments on those two islands.
Many have been watching with interest the decision by Phillip La Corbiniere, St Lucia’s minister for legal affairs, home affairs and national security to take legal action last Friday against Timothy Poleon, a popular broadcast journalist on the island. Grenada recently passed a sweeping cyber-crimes law which -- according to Elvin Nimrod, Grenada’s minister for legal affairs -- is aimed at “protect[ing] society, especially those who are vulnerable to modern technology.” The law has been denounced by several regional and international organizations whose missions include protection of press freedoms.
Joining the veterans like Danticat were several Caribbean newcomers including British-born, Guyanese-Grenadian Oonya Kempadoo and Jamaican Diana McCaulay. Festival planners also offered a smorgasbord of bookend events that sprawled across the Brooklyn landscape in the days leading up to the Sunday festival.
It was standing room only at the Thursday, September 19 evening sponsored by Akashic Books, Bocas Lit Fest, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and the Caribbean Cultural Theatre. This festival bookend event featured Robert Antoni (As Flies to Whatless Boys
), Elsie Augustave (The Roving Tree
), Ifeona Fulani (Ten Days in Jamaica
), Barbara Jenkins (Sic Transit Wagon
), Kempadoo (All Decent Animals
), Montague Kobbé (The Night of the Rambler
), and McCaulay (Huracan
). All who were gathered in MoCADA’s Fort Greene space seemed to reverently receive the offered readings. Others mingled just outside the doors, surprisingly unruffled by not being able to access the inner hall that housed the writers.
Haiti Cultural Exchange followed that stellar event with a Haitian-inspired evening on Saturday, September 21 at FiveMyles Gallery in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Noted Haitian educator, choreographer, and author Elsie Augustave read from her new novel The Roving Tree
while special guest Edwidge Danticat discussed aspects of her career and offered an excerpt from Claire of the Sea Light
, her newest novel.
“Booklovers found their ‘eighth world wonder’ at the eighth annual Brooklyn Book Festival, right here in ‘Book-lyn’, USA!” said Borough President Markowitz in his usual exuberant fashion. “Many festival-goers simply couldn’t believe the incredible number and variety of authors, illustrators and publishers waiting to meet and greet them. That is a tribute to the tireless efforts of the Brooklyn Literary Council and the many volunteers who work year-round to make this sensational salute to the written word possible, as well as the generous sponsorship of AT&T and other partners.”
The chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, Akashic publisher Johnny Temple directly addressed the contributions of Caribbean writers to the festival.
“There is tremendous value in having Caribbean writers represented in the festival – though I should point out that we have always
included Caribbean writers every year, to the point that this feels integral to me. Caribbean writers are an important part of the world’s literary landscape in 2013, not to mention that Brooklyn has such a large Caribbean population. So it wouldn’t do justice to the audience of book lovers here in Brooklyn if we had a huge book festival and didn’t include West Indians in our programming,” he said.
“Akashic is committed to giving voice to Caribbean writers simply because we are committed to excellent literature. The Caribbean has a long history of producing phenomenal writers, and this is a tradition that we very much want to be a part of,” Temple added.
Festival volunteer and Elizabeth Irwine High School senior Samantha Maison was thrilled with the opportunity to meet the stars of the literary world.
“Imagine being able to meet these people… I am reading their work… and here there are right here at this festival,” she said in effervescent adolescent fashion.
She also “met the world” by connecting with teens visiting from France, Israel and elsewhere. Maison even brought her mother, Guyanese-American Natasha Creese, and eight- and ten-year-old sisters to the festival.
“Everyone should experience this,” she said, throwing open her arms to let her body language underscore that the Brooklyn Book Festival was one of the borough’s best deals.
Festival partners included Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Historical Society, Cave Canem, Center for Fiction, London Review of Books, The Nation, National Book Foundation, The New York Review of Books, PEN American Center, Poetry Society of America, and St Francis College.
Lavern McDonald grew up in the Dry Harbour Mountains of St. Ann, Jamaica. Over the years she has maintained her passion for reading and, in the age of e-readers, is seriously wrestling with her Luddite tendencies as translated in her unwavering hold on her significant collection of books. Share your comments with her at firstname.lastname@example.org