Monday 23 March 2015


The Paris Book Fair advertises its guest of honour.
The aroma of Brazilian cooking, the poetry of the Portuguese language, and a spirit of protest pervaded this year’s Paris Book Fair, March 20 - 23.

Billed as “un pays plein de voix” (a country full of voice), Brazil was the guest of honour, with 48 writers invited. The world-renowned Paulo Coelho was supposed to be the star of this lineup, but he couldn’t fit Paris into his busy schedule, according to the Fair’s organizers, so others kept the words going.

Ana Paula Maia (photo: M. Correa)
These included Bernardo Carvalho, considered one of Brazil’s best contemporary authors, and the emerging writers Tatiana Salem Levy - author of the acclaimed novel A Chave de Casa - and Ana Paula Maia, who began her career with “short pulp fiction” on the Internet and now has numerous fans.

Maia's French publisher, Paula Anacaona of Anacaona Editions, told SWAN that the young Brazilian author gives voice to those who normally have no presence in literature - a slaughterhouse employee, a worker at a crematorium. 

At the Fair, Maia and her peers discussed topics ranging from the depiction of urban violence to dealing with memory and displacement. 

But food was also a part of the experience at the Brazilian pavillion, as chefs gave workshops on the country’s cuisine, presenting appetizing-looking concoctions alongside their cookbooks.

The smell of food intermingled with sounds of protest when, on the second day of the Fair, French writers demonstrated to highlight the dangers that all in the profession are facing: work insecurity, "derisory" income, and unfavourable state regulation, among other issues.

“No writers, no books,” the protesters warned via their placards.

Still, during the four days of the Fair, book lovers filled rows of sturdy white plastic chairs as they listened to the invited Brazilian authors as well as writers from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Writers from France's overseas territories.
The African presence has continued to grow, and the huge pavilion featuring “Livres et auteurs du Bassin du Congo” (Books and Writers of the Congo Basin) acts as a magnet for a broad cross-section of visitors.

African and Caribbean authors participated too in readings and debates at the pavillions of publishers from French overseas territories including Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Martin.

Guadeloupe’s Editions Jasor presented several writers including playwright Gerty Dambury, and the Guadeloupe Region’s Culture Service promoted its upcoming Caribbean Writers Congress, taking place on the island April 15 to 18.

Dominique Hubert
“We’ll have writers from all over the Caribbean, speaking French, Spanish, English, and showing the richness of the region’s literature,” said spokesperson Dominique Hubert. (SWAN will have a special report on the biennial Congress in April.)

Another highlight of the fair has been discovering off-beat, independent publishers that produce strikingly original books, both in format and content.

La Cheminante, a French publishing house headed by Sylvie Darreau, has launched a Harlem Renaissance collection, for instance, that emphasizes the links between African American writers and the Diaspora.

Beautifully produced, the layout of the books tells as much of a story as the words. Even the font and size of the page numbers are meant to evoke certain feelings among readers.

Darreau and Boum
La Cheminante also publishes French-based African writers such as Hemley Boum, who presented her third novel Les maquisards (The guerillas) on March 22. Through a family saga, the book shines light on little-known aspects of the fight for Cameroon's independence.

This year the Fair additionally launched a “Talented Indies” programme, “starring” up and coming French-speaking publishers from cities such as Algers, Brussels, Marseille, Casablanca, Geneva and Tunis.

"This is  a space where we can come together, and we need that more and more, in light of all the incidents that have taken place since the beginning of the year," said Darreau, referring to attacks in France, Tunisia and other countries.

Monday 2 March 2015


“I think Afro-American theatre comes out of protest. It is a violent reaction to untenable conditions. Caribbean theatre has all the same reasons for the anger, but our memory is not the same kind.”

This remark from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott is just one of the frank and provocative comments in Visions and Voices, a captivating book by Olivier Stephenson that comprises interviews with 14 Caribbean playwrights.

The 435-page volume includes conversations with Jamaica’s best known dramatists Trevor Rhone and Dennis Scott, Montserrat’s Edgar Nkosi White and Trinidad’s Errol Hill - “widely recognized as the father of the English-speaking Caribbean theatre”. And, off course, there is St. Lucian-born Walcott, the Caribbean’s most celebrated poet-playwright-artist. But only one female dramatist,  Jamaica’s Carmen Tipling, is featured in the collection, which detracts from its completeness.

Stephenson, a Jamaican-born, United States-based journalist and playwright himself, conducted the interviews in the 1970s and 1980s when he was actively involved in theatre in New York as a founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre.

Many of his peers (and “elders”) were also living in the U.S. or visiting at the time, which was a crucial period for the genre, full of new plays and a sense of community. After Stephenson’s interviews were completed, it would take more than 30 years for the book to be published, however. 

“Some publishers said it was too academic, while others said it wasn’t academic enough,” Stephenson recalls. Finally, England-based Peepal Tree Press stepped in and the book came out last year, with a preface by prize-winning writer Kwame Dawes.

Olivier Stephenson (photo: C. West)
In the interim, Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and several of the playwrights have died; but their words still give a riveting picture of the Caribbean theatre world, with all the experiences, visions and goals. Walcott, now 85 years old, delivers some of the most insightful comments, positioning the Caribbean artist in an international context and criticizing the lack of state support for art and culture in the region.

“The body of Caribbean literature in the theatre, I think, is still minuscule,” he tells Stephenson. “And I think the reason for that is that there is not enough encouragement given to the development of the Caribbean actor and dancer in his or her native island.”

Since Walcott said those words, some things have naturally changed, with high-quality arts festivals now taking place across the Caribbean and several home-grown awards being launched. But much more needs to be achieved in the area of cultural policy.

“What stultifies and cripples in the Caribbean is the absence of that machine (to get plays made),” Walcott says. “So what you find is a lot of people having to give up writing plays because they can’t get them done.

“The total amount of unproduced plays in the Caribbean must be very, very large and God knows how many are good,” he adds.

Stephenson, in an interview with SWAN, said he completely agreed with Walcott’s assessment. “There is unquestionably not enough support,” he said. “A lot of lip service is paid to promoting the arts, but nothing is really done because that is how governments work.”

An interesting aspect of the interviews in Visions and Voices is the way Caribbean dramatists respond to comparisons between them and others in the sector. Of the criticism by some African-American playwrights that Caribbean - or West Indian - writers aren't angry enough, Walcott has this revealing response (worth repeating in its entirety):

Derek Walcott
Well, you see, I don’t think that a West Indian gets up in the morning saying, “I am black.” There is not an American Black who doesn't get up in the morning and think, even subliminally, “I am black and I have to face the day.” They get up in the morning with the feeling that something’s going to happen to them simply because they are black. That goes on in this country (the U.S.) still. It does not happen in the Caribbean. One does not get up in the morning and say, “Jesus Christ, I am black and some mother is going to be out for my ass today!” And that’s the difference. And because the Caribbean writer does not wake up in the morning with that kind of burden, he has the advantage of being able to develop a sense of universal anger, a certain perspective on the conditions of the Black or any Third World disadvantaged race.

One of the reasons why Caribbean plays are so banal - so many plays are just jokes, comedies, or backyard farces - is because that problem, the weight of being Black, does not exist for them; there’s no fight against “The Man”, against a visible oppressor. If anything, the Caribbean tendency is toward a political anger rather than a personal anger - towards a socialist or a Marxist perspective. You can’t help but be leftist in the Caribbean if you’re a writer - you have no choice, really.

When Stephenson asks why Walcott says this, the grand master of Caribbean letters replies: “Because of the poverty, of the violent contrast between the rich and the poor. And anybody with a simple sense of justice realizes that the system in the Caribbean is unjust for the majority of the people. So that kind of anger is there.

Whether one agrees with Walcott or not, Stephenson's book does give readers much to think about, and perhaps it will also encourage the public to see a Caribbean play the next time one is presented in their area. - A.M.

For more on Caribbean literature, see: