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Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival kicks off this weekend

The event will feature readings, discussions, performances and an evening with award-winning Caribbean American writer Jamaica Kincaid.

"I wanted to celebrate the Caribbean writer in a time when another narrative about immigrants is needed and to open the beauty of Caribbean literature to people who love literature but may not know the genre exists," says Marsha Massiah-Aaron, BCLF organizer. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marsha Massiah-Aaron

Cultural events abound in the city, but an event showcasing Caribbean literature will be a first when it kicks off this weekend.

The Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival (BCLF) will take place Friday through Sunday, and will feature readings, discussions, performances and an evening with award-winning Caribbean American writer Jamaica Kincaid.

Organizers hope the festival pushes beyond the image of sun, sea and sand to present the diverse and complex stories of the region and its scribes to a wider audience.

“I wanted to celebrate the Caribbean writer in a time when another narrative about immigrants is needed and to open the beauty of Caribbean literature to people who love literature but may not know the genre exists,” says Marsha Massiah-Aaron, BCLF organizer.

The festival, under the theme “Caribbean Beyond Carnival,” comes on the heels of New York’s annual West Indian American Day parade. “It’s a play on the chronology… but carnival is a metaphor for whatever the mainstream [idea] of Caribbean identity is,” say Massiah-Aaron, a Trinidadian immigrant. “We wanted to create a parallel narrative of what our identity means because we’re so much more.”

Massiah-Aaron started planning in the spring after she found, to her surprise, there was no major festival for the genre in the city.

“It was a fitting time and place because Brooklyn has a special relationship with the [Caribbean] diaspora,” she says. Caribbean immigrants make up 30% of Brooklyn’s population, according to the Census Bureau's 2016 American Community Survey, and the borough has one of the largest clusters of West Indian immigrants in the country. 

Organizers — partnering with The Idea Room, the Center for Fiction, the Office of the Brooklyn President, Community Revitalization Partnership and MAP Media International — hope the festival will launch Caribbean literature further into the mainstream, beyond well-known luminaries such as Kincaid, Kamau Brathwaite and Aimé Césaire. They also want to encourage emergent writers to make their mark.

To promote the next generation of Caribbean authors, BCLF will announce the Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writer’s Award for unpublished writers of Caribbean heritage. The award is named after Nunez, a distinguished English professor at Hunter College and author.

Nunez, who came to the U.S. from Trinidad at 19, says the festival will highlight the experiences of Caribbean people in the United States and broaden knowledge of the region “not just as a tourist spot, but a place where there are diverse voices. The Caribbean produces not only musicians like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, but also Nobel laureates like Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul.”

The festival’s emphasis on identity and representation is important, says Damaris Hill, an English professor at the University of Kentucky. “It’s inauthentic,” to portray black people as a monolith, she says. “The complexities of their stories need festivals like this to connect with people and to explore.” Hill, a Bermudan American, will speak on a panel on hybrid identities.

An evening with Antiguan-born Jamaica Kincaid will feature conversation and tribute readings. Securing the “Annie John” author and professor for the inaugural festival was “the greatest commendation.

Unreal,” says Massiah-Aaron. “When she said yes…it was a reminder that it’s essential work that’s being done.”

Other programming highlights include an ode to the Caribbean tradition of oral storytelling; I Belong to the House of Music, a take on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs”; and The Gayelle, an open-air celebration which will include a food and craft market, children’s activities, storytelling and performances to close the weekend.

Massiah-Aaron says the event is for anyone who loves literature and culture and attendees should expect a traditional festival framework with a dash of island flair.

“There’s just a way with Caribbean people,” she says, “an infectious, joie de vivre that we carry and we want to imbue all the events with that.”

If You Go: Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival takes place Friday through Sunday at various times and locations. FREE (except “Evening with Jamaica Kincaid,” $20), full schedule of events and locations at bklyncbeanlitfest.com.

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