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Lit Fest: Lovelace Brought Caribbean Literature to the World while Staying at Home

Celebrated Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace told audience members at the Second Annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival that, despite what can be conventional wisdom in small places, ambition kept him committed to writing from within the region rather than from abroad.

Scheduled events featuring authors Salman Rushdie and Jamaica Kincaid were cancelled at the last moment at the festival, but attendees looking to interact with a preeminent figure in modern literature were pleased to mingle with Lovelace.

Lovelace is perhaps best known for his 1979 novel “The Dragon Can’t Dance,” the story of a diverse set of Trinidadian characters all searching for identity and self-determination amid a society in turmoil. The novel has become a classic of Caribbean literature and cemented Lovelace’s reputation as one of the most esteemed West Indian writers of a 1930’s-born generation that includes Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul.

Lovelace published his first novel in the 1960s and has stayed busy. In 1997 he won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his novel, “Salt.” His 2011 novel “Is Just a Movie” won the OCM Bocas prize for Caribbean Literature.

At the University of the Virgin Islands’ St. Croix campus Thursday and Friday, Lovelace brought his decades of experience as a writer to two “workshops” that took the form of informal conversations with small, engaged audiences. Thursday’s event was titled “Approaches to Plot Construction and Characterization in Caribbean Fiction.” On Friday, Lovelace spoke about “The Dynamics of Writing from Within and Outside the Caribbean.”

A fact often noted about Lovelace’s career is that unlike many Anglophone Caribbean writers immersed in the region’s mid-century “literary decolonization,” he was never permanently based in Great Britain or the United States. He has written from Trinidad throughout his career, and has been a consistent participant in the cultural life of his country, and the region, for the last six decades.

When asked Thursday about the conflict between “writing from exile” and staying at home, which became a central concern to his generation of Caribbean writers, Lovelace offered a reversal of what is often conventional wisdom in small places: “I stayed, perhaps, because I was more ambitious.”

Lovelace told attendees of the lit fest that he has always sought to “build culture” that doesn’t need to look to authority outside the region. He recounted his time living in a rural village in Trinidad, where his participation in local community theater was just as important to him as writing the novels that would become internationally-acclaimed and translated into several languages.

“I would have a hard time living simply ‘on’ a place,” he said. Instead, he believes an artist’s “responsibility,” is to be involved in shaping it.

“Every generation must discover its mission, and either fulfill it or betray it,” Lovelace told his workshop attendees on Friday, paraphrasing the Martinican revolutionary and writer Frantz Fanon.

In addition to Lovelace’s workshops, UVI’s St. Croix campus was abuzz this weekend with other literary activities.

Elizabeth Nunez, an award-winning writer and professor also born in Trinidad, replaced Rushdie, who bowed out of the event due to a scheduling conflict, as the lit-fest’s keynote speaker. Nunez is the author of nine novels and one memoir. She is also the co-founder of the U.S.’s National Black Writers Conference.

Tobias Buckell, a Grenadian-born, Virgin Islands-raised science fiction writer, gave a talk on an emerging collective of young Caribbean sci-fi writers who are merging the genre with West Indian themes and settings. The Ohio-based Buckell, a member of the same All Saints School class that produced novelist and poet Tiphanie Yanique, described reading to a V.I. audience on V.I. soil as a “bucket-list moment” via his Twitter account.

Keithlyn B. Smith, author of “To Shoot Hard Labor: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan Working Man,” partnered with St. Croix author and radio host Mario Moorhead to speak about resurrecting buried histories through writing.

Prolific St. Martin poet Lasana Sekou held a workshop on spoken-word performance.

Suriname-born documentary filmmaker Ida Does hosted a screening of her documentary on St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott and spoke about film-making in the region.

Other topics discussed at events held across campus included the challenges of writing translations, song lyrics and poetry as a vehicle for social change, and contemporary Caribbean playwriting.

On Friday the event spilled over into Frederiksted where the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts hosted its second annual “Book Bacchanal.”

The museum center hosted an open mic night, musical performances, and a visual art exhibit, “Invisible Heritage: Identity, Memory and Our Town,” with a panel discussion featuring preservationists working in both the historical record and the creative arts. The show and panel, facilitated by Monica Marin, featured La Vaughn Belle, Gerville Larsen, George Tyson and Frandelle Gerard.

A full line-up of guests and events are online at the VI Lit Fest’s website at: https://vilitfest.wordpress.com/.

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