Fans of Caribbean and Diaspora literature came out in huge numbers to browse new titles, catch up with old friends, and engage with current ideas at the annual Brooklyn Book Festival in late September.
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. The festival bookend event on featured Robert Antoni (As Flies to Whatless Boys), Elsie Augustave (The Roving Tree), Ifeona Fulani (Ten Days in Jamaica), Barbara Jenkins (Sic Transit Wagon), Oonya Kempadoo (All Decent Animals), Montague Kobbé (The Night of the Rambler), and Diana 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 memorable evening of their own 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.
After those two rich lead-ins, the September 22 day-long festival was just more of the same for Caribbean book lovers. After a night of pouring rain, Sunday festival-goers showed up at Brooklyn Borough Hall to find that blue tents had mushroomed all over the plaza. For the brave who arrived early, they saw publishing companies, literary agencies, bookshops and myriad operators who support writers and their readers setting up on the bluestone slate pavers under the London plane trees. The Sunday schedule, packed with more than 80 discrete offerings distributed in 13 spaces, offered something for everyone.
“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.
While the festival has grown from a few presenters on a stage in front and in the public rooms of Borough Hall in 2006 to the current campus of activities stretched across neighboring institutions including Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn Historical Society, St. Francis College, and St. Ann’s Church, it still retained a certain quality of intimacy. It was the place to see Brooklyn veterans including Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat to the newcomers including British-born, Guyanese-Grenadian Oonya Kempadoo and Jamaican Diana McCaulay.
“I was excited by the size, diversity and richness of the Brooklyn Book Festival,” McCaulay reflected. “There were so many amazing panels and readings…it was very hard to choose between them. The organization was exemplary as well. This was a very large number of visitors and all was handled seamlessly.”
McCauley read from her new novel and talked about her protagonist throwing off the risk of stasis by leaving New York and moving back to her country of origin, Jamaica. Her protagonist chooses to navigate the vagaries of a working class life in Kingston where the individuals who make life in the downtown communities bob and weave through precarious situations like the flotsam and jetsam in Kingston Harbor just beyond. McCaulay, even in the abbreviated afternoon session, was peppered with questions from young Caribbean-American women whose distinct accents quickly established their particular islands of origin. McCaulay described her experience as being differently stimulating: “In my panel, we read very short pieces from our work and had a more general discussion around a common theme – I thought this was more interesting for the audience than the usual format with authors reading a longer extract.” She hopes to return to the festival many times in the future.
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.” 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 Bertolt Brecht’s 1947 essay “We 19” written after his testimony before United States Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 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, he was the only one who chose not to invoke his Fifth Amendment right and answered questions. Instead of being direct, Brecht used his sharply ironic intellect to subvert the process. Many in Hollywood were marked and experienced serious constraints on their work.
Danticat was joined by several New York luminaries including Jewish-Egyptian writer Andre Aciman, U.S. 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 the festival certainly felt to some like a big New England college campus with a significant quad, the space was also very intimate. Danticat, the MacArthur Genius Award winning writer, giggled as she asked a photographer, “Did you get me and Sonia?” when she, poet Sonia Sanchez and Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu posed for a picture in what could be captioned as a 21st century representation of modernity’s infamous triangle.
Kempadoo shared how much she valued that literature served as a forum in which to talk about difficult subjects in places like the Caribbean where some topics, like HIV, are still taboo.
Some of the other well-received writers included Nigeria’s Okey Ndibe, who is currently in residence at Brown University when not enduring extended detentions while in transit through Nigerian airports for his journalistic work that is critical of political and financial actors in his country of origin, shared that he advises his students to “read and write as if their very lives depended on it.”
Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vasquez talked about being finding inspiration in a collection of discarded letters he found in a London second-hand bookshop. These letters from an American Peace Corps volunteer detailed the early beginnings of what would grow into a marijuana-growing network stemming from California to Jamaica to Colombia and which spawned the narco-trafficking crisis.
Festival volunteer and Elizabeth Irwine High School senior Samantha Maison was thrilled with the opportunity to meet many leaders 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 an 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.
When the festival closed, the crowd dissipated quietly into the fall evening with arms full of books, hearts lifted by warm exchanges and heads teeming with ideas.
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.