The Bahamas Writers Summer Institute – Spirit of a Shared Vision

In the summer of 2008, Marion Bethel and I were in the lecture theatre of the College of the Bahamas speaking on a panel about the role of the writer in Bahamian society. We spoke of many things: the writer as troublemaker and subversive; the writer as recorder of people’s languages; the writer as creator of national myths; the need for audiences who read. Between the writers and the audience there was discussion and lament. Why were people not reading the works of Bahamian writers? Why shouldn’t we write in languages that sounded like our communities spoke? Why was Bahamian literature not reaching the people? Why, in the words of poet Obediah Michael Smith, did the people not know that poetry, and story, and words, belonged to them? To us?

Carifesta X was weeks away. I had come back from California yearning for reconnection with my community; I had read of police investigating poets in the news months before and listened to the voices of a younger and fierce generation of spoken word artists at community art centers like The Hub; I could feel the swell of energies as artists of every genre took up more space, demanded that they be taken seriously, and valued, not as mere entertainment, or decoration, but as people whose lives and work were part of the lifeblood of the country. And in that moment, what became clear was that if we wanted literature to thrive, we needed to talk to it, take care of it, feed it, value the crafting of it; we needed to make a space for those who wanted to write, and those who were writing, to gather, to witness to one another, to talk to one another about what it is we do, why we must do it, and how to do it well. It was not the first time such thoughts had come to me, but it was the first time they felt possible.

It is always true that if we want a revolution, we have to make it ourselves. And in the tradition of Caribbean women, I did not want to make revolution alone. The first time Marion and I met, I was a budding feminist and she was a founding member of DAWN, one of the few Bahamian women’s NGOs to call itself feminist. In the years to come she would become mentor and friend, a sister writer and activist whose perspectives were consistently rooted in internal and external struggle to conceive of and act towards justice, to make connections between what we understood in our postcolonial context as interlocking systems of oppression, to give language to the connections she perceived and the realities she and others were living. Marion understood the words that had saved me too, the ones Audre Lorde wrote so many years ago: Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. I knew that Marion and I shared a vision of writing as not only liberatory but transformative.

The Bahamas Writers Summer Institute was created out of this shared vision.

BWSI came out of the shared vision that writing does not happen in a vacuum, in isolation, although we may write when we are alone; rather, the writing comes from our embodied selves, located in our communities, from and of all that our communities have been and are and might be. BWSI came out of a shared vision that as Caribbean writers we do not come from only one place, or one community, but many; BWSI came out of a shared vision that as Caribbean writers our literary lineages span oceans and continents and in the words of Derek Walcott, we are entitled to them all; and BWSI came out of the shared vision that as Caribbean writers, we have inherited a rich history of imagination that even when obscured from view, through religious and cultural edicts to ‘stop storying’, that history cannot be denied: the possibilities of imagination and the will to story are regenerative, like the tail of the green lizard.

Days before the opening of the first BWSI, I drove over to Clifton Pier, the historical site where once, not so long ago, Africans were taken off British-owned ships to begin lives as slaves in the surrounding sugar plantations. The sea below was deep and green and restless. It had started, lightly, to rain. I took off my glasses, all the better to see. The figures to my left, women and men carved from standing casuarina trunks by artist Antonius Roberts, rose up, haunted, peering far out across the water. Large iron bells, the work of Tyrone Ferguson, hung from the branches of living trees overhead. Other times I had been here and heard the bells’ dull metallic clanging, and sensed the mourning of the spirits of the wooden figures, of the women and men pining towards Africa. In that moment, though, I felt they were neither mourning nor pining, but expectant of something rising up out of that green sea, something that had not been here before. I remembered the words from a play by Ian Strachan: From the bones of old gods come the new. Guided by the path of their eyes across the water I sensed the movement of something generative there – the way that stories and poems move inside the writer or a community of writers in the moments before they are born.

BWSI was born out of this vision as well; from the bones of Obatala and Yemaya, from Oshumare and Ogun, and from the bones of the gods and goddesses of Europe, who perhaps hovered like forgotten promises over ships sailing blindly for a new world, and from the Egun too, the Ancestors –all of them– come new stories, the ones we are called to make into essays and testimonials, poems and plays, novels and films: words to shape the worlds we can imagine.

Helen Klonaris
September 17, 2010
Oakland, CA

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