On the eve of the annual literary festival that seeks to promote literary culture and is attended by people from TT, the Caribbean, UK and North America there is a debate going on in social media about encouraging local people to write when they should be encouraged to read instead. The argument is that the new writers are thoughtless, sidestep the current, are amateurs. Well, maybe we do not yet have a whole brigade of bestselling writers but some of the new crop of Caribbean authors certainly includes some acknowledged very talented ones who do address contemporary issues and have literary hinterland. You have to start somewhere and there is no point attempting to do that from somewhere other than where you are standing.
In the 1940s Henry Swanzy was the editor in the BBC’s General Overseas Service, now called the World Service, of the weekly Caribbean Voices programme that featured creative writing from the English-speaking Caribbean. It became pivotal in shaping the development of the region’s post war literature, now regarded as the Golden Age of Caribbean writing. The programme helped launch the careers of many writers who achieved international fame: Trinidadians Sam Selvon and Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul; the other Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott from St Lucia; Kamau Brathwaite and George Lamming from Barbados; Jamaicans Gloria Escofery, John Figueroa and Andrew Salkey; Guyanese Edgar Mittelholzer, Wilson Harris and Ian McDonald; and E M “Shake” Keane from St Vincent.
They did not all start off as stellar writers but they were encouraged to write, offered remuneration if their work was broadcast and, importantly, criticism of their material. There was no forum, such as our lit fest, for their work internationally except through Caribbean Voices and by championing local and Caribbean specific ways of expression in writing Swanzy helped the development and accessibility of Caribbean writing to a wider audience. It started small in 1943 but by 1955 when Swanzy left, 400 stories and poems along with plays and literary criticism had been broadcast by 372 contributors. On Swanzy’s departure the Times Literary Supplement wrote “West Indian writers freely acknowledge their debt to the BBC for its encouragement, financial and aesthetic. Without that encouragement the birth of a Caribbean literature would have been slower and even more painful than it has been”. Naipaul noted that Swanzy brought to the programme “standards and enthusiasm. He took local writing seriously and lifted it above the local”.
Local is where it starts and grows. John La Rose was a son of Trinidad soil who migrated to Britain in 1961. He took with him a highly developed political sensibility and with his partner, Sarah White, founded in London in 1966, New Beacon Books, both a pioneering publishing house and a specialist bookshop focusing on writers and writing from the Caribbean. For him publishing was a vehicle to give independent validation to one’s own culture, history and politics, a way of achieving cultural and social change. Like Swanzy, he understood the vital role of the editor and over the past four decades New Beacon, which he edited as he did the New Beacon Review, has published works by writers such as Wilson Harris, Andrew Salkey, Errol Hill, Dennis Scott, Erna Brodber, Mervyn Morris, and numerous others.
La Rose saw what was missing and attempted to plug the gap. In 1966 he co-founded with Andrew Salkey and Kamau Brathwaite, the Caribbean Artists Movement, providing a platform for Caribbean artists, poets, writers, dramatists, actors and musicians. In 1982 he co-founded and directed the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books until 1995. The George Padmore Institute, an archive, library and educational research centre housing materials relating to communities of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe, was established in 1991.
Beginning at the 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Henry Swanzy’s memory will be honoured annually by recognising the achievements of other editors, broadcasters, publishers and critics. The inaugural Bocas Henry Swanzy Award will be presented to John La Rose (posthumously) and Sarah White. As part of the award ceremony Sarah White will give a talk on the history of New Beacon and the life and work of the late John La Rose. An accompanying film Dream to Change the World will also be screened. The NGC Bocas Lit Fest is free and open to all. It runs from 25-28 April at NALIS.