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Rebirth: St Martin Book Fair

June 2022

Review by Michael McMillan


From being relatively invisible, Black writers in Britain have over the past five decades become readily visible in the lists of mainstream publishers, on bookshelves in shops and libraries, on the shortlists of literary prizes, on judging panels and in book fairs. For this level of success, we have had to set up cultural institutions led by us, with us, for and about us. I’m thinking here of Black-led publishers such as New Beacon Books and Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, Black-run bookshops (good to see that New Beacon Bookshop has been saved from closure with Black community support) and book fairs, in particular the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. Coordinated by Bogle L’Ouverture, New Beacon and Race Today, the book fair ran from 1982 until 1995 and, as the name suggests, embraced the internationalism of the global majority. 

I attended, post Covid-19 and in-person, the 20th anniversary in the Caribbean of the St Martin Book Fair, held from 2-4 June 2022, to present a version of my preface to Vincentian poet Natasha C. Marks’ new collection, Children of the Ash (2022). Marks uses the 2020 to 2021 eruptions of La Soufrière volcano to expose the dirty realities of life and the landscape-altering experiences of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

In Britain, we tend to focus on what happens in the British West Indies through the annual Calabash literary festival in Jamaica and Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad which dominate our gaze. Saint Martin, in the north-eastern Caribbean archipelago known as the Leeward Islands, is an island of 37 square miles which has been divided between France and the Netherlands since the seventeenth century, and where sea salt was harvested by the enslaved. Today, French and Dutch tourists visit on cruise ships that support the local economy. Most people are bilingual, but speak their own creole nation languages of Papiamento or Papiamentu (as spoken on Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire as part of the Dutch Antilles) and Patois or Patwa (as spoken on Martinique, St Lucia, Dominica, Haiti, Guadeloupe and other islands). In their everyday lives, I was told that St Martiners tend to ignore the division between St Martin (French) and Sint Maarten (Dutch) unless France and the Netherlands want to remind them of their colonial status. 

The St Martin Book Fair was co-founded by Shujah Reiph of Conscious Lyrics Foundation and the poet and cultural historian Lasana M. Sekou of the House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP), whose backlist includes Kamau Brathwaite, Amiri Baraka, Shake Keane and George Lamming. HNP has published several poetry collections from Sekou, who also performed at the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. Reiph, who co-ordinates the Book Fair observes that, ‘Our modest ambition was to have a book fair that would bring the entire family closer to the book, and among other things, show as a lie the saying that if you want hide something from a Black person, put it in a book.’   

When cab drivers and others asked if I was on holiday and I told them I was attending the Book Fair, they would respond, ‘Me know deh book fair well, and me even bought books from it,’ adding that they also knew Shujah and Lasana. On such a small island, with few arts and cultural institutions to compete with, the Book Fair is cherished by St Martiners, with 40%-50% of its financial support coming from public donations.  

In a keynote speech, Barbados’s Ambassador to CARICOM, David Comissiong, reminded us that resistance to neo-colonial forces in the Caribbean and its diaspora lies in embracing the cultural history we share. Reiph echoed this sentiment in arguing that the 20th edition of the Book Fair marked an attempt to reinvent ourselves culturally after the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘to chart a course that will launch us into a new orbit’, hence the theme of ‘rebirth’. Several writers from previous Book Fairs have passed away during Covid, notably the Barbadian novelist, essayist and thinker, George Lamming, on the Book Fair’s last day.

A core theme in Black arts and culture across the Caribbean diaspora has been developing intergenerational conversations, to consolidate the historical continuity of arts practice and replenish cultural institutions with new blood. Many young people co-ordinating the Book Fair’s events and activities attended as children. The poet Caleb Dros was five years old when the first Book Fair took place. Hearing him read from his recently published chapbook Oualichi: Land of Oma (2022), it was evident from the poise, power and intimacy of the poems that he has absorbed the work of other poets at the Book Fair growing up. An animated performance from Martinican poet Marie-Pierre Loiseau brought elements of créole oral tradition, zouk music and hip hop that also captured the attention of people strolling by.

Aside from readings, book launches and signings, the Book Fair included a programme of workshops covering a range of genres and industry-related themes and issues – children’s literature with children as participants, women’s maternal health, Black women’s hair – as well as panel discussions for first-time writers, one exploring créole literature from Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante, and another independent publishing. One fascinating session featured authors, Mary Romney-Schaab and Serge Gumbs, whose respective books, An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: From Papiamentu to German (2020) and Saint-Martin dans la Grande Guerre (2022) speak to the histories of St Martiners involved in the First and Second World Wars. A drama workshop was led by the dramatist and poet, Yvonne Weekes, who has lived in Barbados since being forced to move from Montserrat by the Soufrière Hills volcanic eruption of 1995. Disaster Matters: Disasters Matter (2022) edited by Weekes and Wendy McMahon, is an illustrated anthology of poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction and scientific articles that asks critical questions about climate issues, hazards, and disasters, ‘especially hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes in the Caribbean’. 

The St Martin Book Fair may be small in comparison to other similar literature festivals, but it is talawa – small but large in its reach, and a model for building, developing and sustaining Black-led cultural institutions. To quote George Lamming’s 1966 essay ‘The West Indian People’, ‘The architecture of our future is not only unfinished; the scaffolding has hardly gone up’.