Over the weekend of August 9 -11, 2013, the 6th edition of Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival and Book Fair took place at the Open Campus of the
University of West Indies (UWI) near Roseau. It wrapped up on Sunday evening at lovely Mero Beach, about a half hour drive up the west coast from the capital.
I am still mentally processing the words, ideas, expressions, performances and professions that moved my soul over the course of the three-day event. While I did attend almost all of it (with the exception of the well-received final evening on Mero Beach), I will show you how it positively affected me through my words and photos.
I was particularly intrigued that this year’s Festival showcased the life and work of Monsieur Aimé Césaire, a famous Martiniquais who was not well-known in Dominica, despite the close proximity of the two islands. By coincidence, I had only become somewhat familiar with him earlier in the year, thanks to the Alliance Française de la Dominique. There, my instructors Director Carole Bogdanovscky and her husband Gildas Lefèvre exposed me to some of his work and ideas. As well, there were recent performances of two of his dramatic pieces: Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), which was presented by famous French actor Jacques Martial as part of Francophone Month in March; and then his Shakespearian-based play Une tempête (A Tempest,) which was performed in English and directed by none other than Literary Festival Chairman Dr. Alwin Bully!
We were to gain more insight into the motivations, creations and character of this”Revolutionary French West Indian Writer” right from the Opening Ceremony. Between remarks from various local dignitaries and Dr. Bully’s overview of the Festival, we were entertained and instructed about Aimé Césaire and his work. Of particular significance is that he developed a concept called la Négritude in the 1930’s. Simply said, it was his firm belief that people of African origin should reject colonialism and racism and take pride in their Black identity, culture and history. Parts of some of his better-known creations were acknowledged, addressed, discussed and even performed throughout this event.
On the Friday night, the audience was given some exposure to Césaire’s political, cultural and social ideals through a reading of selections from Notebook
of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal) by Ann Bruno in French, followed by Dr. Bully, who repeated each excerpt in English. We also had the pleasure of watching two scenes from Dr. Bully’s recently produced A Tempest (Une tempête), which thrilled the almost full house tremendously. It was evident that this French West Indian playwright knew how to incorporate satirical humor to relay his message of the senselessness of imperialism and racism set against the persistent struggle to obtain acceptance and honour of the Black identity.
We were also graced with the presence of Monsieur Serge Letchimy, President of the Regional Council of Martinique, who spoke in French and Creole, which was translated into English by his assistant. He knew Césaire in the political circles of his country. He informed us that as well as being a recognized literary artist, Césaire was the mayor of Fort-de-France Martinique for 56 years (after which Letchimy followed him)! He referred to Césaire as a “political emancipator,” and emphasized that it was this exceptional man’s fervent desire to have universal understanding and respect for Black people.
In addition, Keynote Speaker and Scholar of Caribbean literature Dominican Dr. Shuyler Esprit, PhD, provided us with more insights through her interpretation of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal(Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). She emphasized that while Césaire’s vision was global, it stemmed from some deeply personal encounters with racism in France. While there, he also met others of like mind, including poet Léopold Senghor, who later became the first president of the west African country of Sénégal.
With respect to the concept of la Négritude, she urged the attendees to “remember each other. Remember the person sitting next to you. You are part of a larger community. To be free, [we] must be together.”
On Saturday morning , I and about 25 others of all ages and experience met to take part in a ‘Writing Non-Fiction” workshop conducted by Dr. Schuyler Esprit. It was one of a several intimate literary learning sessions that were offered as part of the Festival. In her lively, enthusiastic and entertaining presentation, she focused on ‘Opinion Writing’. She emphasized that,
“writing is about you! [You have to] give [your] audience room to think and reflect on what you have written.”
Following the workshop, I went home for the lunch break and wrote a poem that placed second in one of the writing competitions. You can read it here.
I arrived back at UWI later that afternoon to check out the Book Fair. Although smaller this year, I always enjoy looking at the latest from Papillote Press, a London-based publishing house that specializes in ‘Dominicana’. I bought the latest release, a children’s story called ‘Look Back!’, which is beautifully illustrated and strongly reflects Dominican culture and heritage through fiction.
Then I caught a fascinating ‘read’ by Phillip Nanton, a St. Vincentian born sociologist and writer, who offered the audience some humorous selections of his work, which got everyone chuckling. He was followed by an expatriate countrywoman, Vonnie Roudette, who impressed the crowd with a slide show about her work as an artist, farmer and teacher in St. Vincent. There, she developed a college level fine arts program, from which students have benefited tremendously.
The night was young – and I and other literary enthusiasts were in for some more performance treats!
Pardon my vernacular, but the young people who participated in the “Lyrics under the Stars” segment basically blew me away! I was so impressed with their creativity, spontaneity, innate talent and courage that I can’t wait to see them perform again!
Hats off to their organizer and coordinator, Shawna Johnson for her energy, enthusiasm and dedication to the promotion of these young folks.
There was more French flavour as the Réseau Poetique de la Guadeloupe entertained us with poems set to music with a traditional African rhythm called Gwo Ka on that French West Indian island. In Dominica, this drum beat is referred to as Bélé. They were certainly entertaining and gave the crowd a real feel for a different type of poetic presentation.
The high-caliber entertainment seemed endless. Dobrene O’Marde from Antigua
read from his very popular book which suggests/implies Caribbean unity through its fictional plot and characters. There were lots of laughs as he read some selections from ‘Send Out You Hand’.
Then award-winning slam poet Whitney Greenaway took the stage and most definitely “knocked everyone’s socks off.” You have to see this young lady perform if you ever get the chance. Otherwise, check her out on you tube here. She was born in the U.S. of Dominican parentage and was actually raised on the Nature Island by her grandmother. She credits this close relative with being a great influence. Her poetic inspirations are very personal and moving. I felt as if the entire audience could identify with her expressive musings. I wish her all the best!
The evening ended for me here, even though there was still more. I could not stay for it, but I hope to see Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s satirical ‘Moloch Tropical’ at another venue in the near future.
For me, the grande finale was Sunday morning, although others would later head off to Mero Beach for the evening performances and closing ceremony. Fortunately, the weather did start to clear, as it had been a rainy weekend. But I had been safe and dry, either under the big tent or in the UWI auditorium!
The first session, entitled ‘Celebrating Césaire’ was an all-encompassing one. The panel disclosed more revelations about this exceptional French West Indian literary artist, intellectual and politician. The speakers were : Dr. Alex Gil, a librarian from Columbia University who wrote his dissertation on Césaire. While doing his research, he actually discovered a manuscript of a play that was written by Césaire when Martinique was occupied during the Vichy regime in World War II.; Dr. Schuyler Esprit, a Caribbean literature scholar discussed the politics (through his works) of this French West Indian writer; and Monsieur Serge Letchimy, President of the Regional Council of Martinique presented personal reminiscences of his compatriot.
The trio really painted a complete picture of this exceptional man. He was collectively described as a “humanist, poet and thinker” who even revised his major works in order to appropriately express his views about Négritude in a meaningful manner that matched societal trends. In an understated fashion, Césaire desired that Black people all over the world honour their history and identity by rejecting colonialism and racism. He was called a man of freedom, as he was seen by many as a liberator of the oppressed. It was a very comprehensive presentation and I hope that the material can be condensed into an article by a knowledgeable academic/researcher for publication. Panelists, take note!
The final Festival presentation at UWI was greatly anticipated by a large number of people, and the packed auditorium was evidence of that. Local historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch has a longstanding reputation for delivering fascinating and unusual aspects of Dominican history with great enthusiasm. This session was no different. The entire room was intrigued by his revelations about Father Raymond Breton, a 17th century French Dominican missionary who spent considerable time with the Kalinagos between 1641-53. He also built the first church in Colihaut (on the west coast) and conducted the first mass in Dominica. He became proficient in the language of these indigenous people and compiled a ‘Karib (Carib)-French’ dictionary of their words and expressions, which was published in 1665. Then, the following year, he released the French-Karib (Carib) version. These are very rare books – with single copies in Dominica and the Duke Humphrey’s Library in Oxford, England. Dr. Honychurch provided plenty of anecdotal information about this exceptional priest’s research: “It is a very involved dictionary,” as often whole phrases are used to describe one word. He reiterated that Dominicans are still the largest users of the Kalinago language, albeit only a limited number of words.
After that amazing presentation, I was satiated with new knowledge and insights about people past and present who had contributed or are contributing significantly to the literary arts in the Caribbean region. Although Festival activities continued at Mero Beach later that day, I returned to my home to digest, savor and process all the wonderful presentations and contributions from a diversity of academics and artists.
Heartfelt thanks to Chairman Dr. Alwin Bully and other the members of the Nature Island Literary Festival Committee for their tremendous efforts in organizing this successful event. It was, without a doubt, a feast for my soul!