Sunday 21 April 2024


Alongside the exciting boom in writing from the Caribbean, the number of literary festivals has been growing throughout the region over the past two decades, and the newest event takes place April 27 on the north coast of Jamaica.

Named after the parish where it is being held, the inaugural St Mary Literary Festival is an addition to established lit-fests in the region, such as the Calabash and Bocas festivals, and it joins emerging celebrations in the Virgin Islands, St Martin and Cuba.

It will feature some 50 writers, including a dozen high school students, for a day of prose and poetry readings, panel discussions and live music, according to the organizers.

The one-day event is the brainchild of Paul Ward, a retired high-school teacher and college lecturer, who moved to Jamaica from the UK in 1970 and married a St Mary resident two years later. Both he and his wife (also a former science teacher) have worked in Nigeria and Zimbabwe as well the United Kingdom and the Caribbean.

An avid reader and non-fiction writer, Ward says he has long engaged in community activity, and the festival has grown out of that. In the following email interview, he tells SWAN about the background to the event.

SWAN: How did the idea for this new festival come about?

Paul Ward: Margaret Busby, author and the first Black woman publisher in the UK, stayed with me for a few days following the Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach (Jamaica) in May last year. I was taken by her anthology of writings by women of African descent, New Daughters of Africa. I took her to speak with the children at our two local schools - and it went down well, especially at the primary school. Some grade-six children wrote stories after that visit, which I put together in a little booklet for them, Likkle Pickney Tell It So.

Treasure Beach is however a long way from St. Mary, and it makes attendance (at Calabash) very costly, being an overnight affair. Thus, the idea of a similar (though more modest community event) on this side of the island: easily within reach from Kingston, combining established writers with aspiring ones and also some schoolchildren.

SWAN: What are some of the literary activities programmed, and what kind of audience are you expecting?

PW: The intention is to have a series of spoken presentations, selected from those who submit written versions, to make a varied and engaging event, divided into three 90-minute sessions. Brief questions and comments after each presentation will be encouraged. If possible, a group discussion of some literary topic will be included in each session. Background music will hopefully be of the traditional kind, such as that provided by drum musician (and poet) Mbala at the meetings of the Poetry Society in Kingston each month.

Some submissions, especially those not presented verbally, will be displayed on notice boards. The hoped-for audience (no, participants) will include the writers themselves, others who already know they enjoy literature, those who didn't know, some schoolchildren and their families.

SWAN: How do you plan to tap into the wide range of literature being produced by Jamaican writers at home and abroad?

PW: We have a contact list of well over 100, including personal contacts, literary organisations in Jamaica and abroad, information in local media (already on IRE FM) and visits to high schools in the St. Mary / Kingston area

SWAN: Can you please describe the venue / general location of the festival?

PW: The venue is perfect. A spacious, hexagonal church hall (which can take 200+ chairs) right next to the sea in Port Maria, capital of St. Mary, and next to the Anglican Parish Church, the main Parish Library, and historic Civic Centre with plenty of parking space. It is within minutes’ walk from the town centre, a bustling busy place with all the charm and challenges of rural Jamaica, for those who don't know them.

SWAN: Literary events have blossomed around the Caribbean over the past two decades. How do you see the St Mary festival fitting into this tradition? 

PW: Most of such events in Jamaica take place in the Kingston area. It is important to make them more accessible for a wider-spread audience, for both enjoyment and edification, and for upcoming writers including schoolchildren as well as those already established. In any case St Mary is known as a special parish: “Is St Mary mi come from” - is a widely-used expression of pride.

SWAN: How can the Jamaican cultural community, both at home and abroad, be of assistance?

PW: By submitting writings (along with videos if attendance is not possible), by spreading the word, by attending (and bringing others along), by contributing ideas on how to make it work best, both this first time and in the future. Monetary contributions would help of course, despite it being a low-budget, community initiative. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): A flyer for the St Mary Literary Festival; editor and publisher Margaret Busby (left) with a colleague at the Calabash festival, photo by A.M./SWAN; the venue-by-the-sea of the St. Mary Literary Festival, photo by Paul Ward.

Wednesday 3 April 2024


Maryse Condé, the acclaimed Guadeloupean author, has died in France at the age of 90 - her death eliciting an outpouring of tributes across the world, particularly in the Caribbean.

Authorities in her homeland announced a community wake to be held April 6 in Pointe-à-Pitre, where members of the public could join in communion to celebrate the life and work of a writer who “always carried Guadeloupe in her heart”.

Born in 1934 on the island (a French overseas department), Condé studied in Paris, lived and taught in Africa and the United States, and wrote more than 20 books over her lifetime. She particularly addressed the history and legacies of slavery and colonialism and spoke out against racism, in Europe and elsewhere.

In 2018, she won the “alternative” Nobel Prize for her work, and she said she wished to share the honour with her family, her friends and, “above all, with the Guadeloupean people who will be so thrilled and touched by seeing me receive this award”.

(The honour replaced that year’s official Nobel Prize in Literature, which was postponed to 2019 following a scandal. Condé's award, formally called The New Academy Prize, was set up by “a wide range of knowledgeable individuals” who accepted the nominations of authors from Sweden’s librarians.)

In its citation for the award, the New Academy declared: “Maryse Condé is a grand storyteller. Her authorship belongs to world literature. In her work, she describes the ravages of colonialism and the postcolonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming. The magic, the dream and the terror is, as also love, constantly present.”

In paying homage after the announcement of her death on April 2, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “A literary giant, Maryse Condé paints a picture of sorrow and hope, from Guadeloupe to Africa, from the Caribbean to Provence. In a language of struggle and splendour that is unique, universal. Free."

Condé’s best-known books include the internationally lauded novels Ségou (Segu), Moi, Tituba sorcière (I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem) and, her final publication, L’Évangile du Nouveau Monde (The Gospel According to the New World). 

Her writing has been rendered into numerous languages, by translators including her husband Richard Philcox, and she will be remembered for work that moved readers across the world and influenced students at institutions where she taught - such as Columbia University in New York.

"Her life and writing have been an inspiration to many young scholars, students, writers - and will continue to be so," said Madeleine Dobie, professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia.

(For Columbia’s full tribute to Maryse Condé, see:

Although Condé wrote in French, her work has long transcended linguistic lines in the Caribbean. "Her contribution is beyond measure," Jamaican professor, writer and translator Elizabeth "Betty" Wilson told SWAN.

More than 30 years ago, Wilson and her sister Pamela Mordecai edited an anthology of Caribbean women writers titled Her True-True Name, which carried a story by Condé in English translation.

“I am so sad that she is gone,” Wilson said. “She lived life to the full.”