Successful Literary Festival on Montserrat

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Cathy Buffonge reviews Montserrat’s annual Alliouagana Festival of the Word for Caribbean News Now.

Montserrat’s annual Alliouagana Festival of the Word was held during November at the Cultural Centre and was much enjoyed and appreciated by those who attended. The Festival is organized each year by the University of the West Indies Open Campus here, led by its dedicated head, Gracelyn Cassell. This year’s theme, marking the 20th year of volcanic activity here, was “Volcanic Dust: Journeys and Connections”.

The first event was the Memorial Lecture, held in honour of Montserrat’s singing star Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell. This year’s lecturer was Dr Aldrin Sweeney who spoke on the topic “Thinking beyond the Ash: Using our Volcanic Resources”. Of Montserrat parentage, Dr Sweeney is a professor at the medical school in Dominica as well as a board member of our Community College here in Montserrat.

He brought to our attention the large number of scientific papers that have been written on many different aspects of our volcano, spreading the new knowledge gained on Montserrat all over the world. He also suggested a variety of ways in which ash could be used, and during discussion time local businessman Kenneth “Kenny” Cassell” produced tiles and other items that had been made using our volcanic ash several years ago, when a factory had been proposed, although this never came to pass.

The official opening of the Festival came the following day, starting with a dynamic and colourful performance by all our masquerade groups.

This year’s Festival Patron, the vibrant Baroness Floella Benjamin, gave a presentation on her “Journeys” – being left behind as a child in Trinidad when her parents migrated to the UK, and being “sent for” later on, only to encounter heart breaking prejudice and discrimination as so many Caribbean children did at that time; how she rose above it and later became a successful drama and film producer, the author of several children’s books, Chancellor of Exeter University, and a member of the House of Lords among other achievements.

The Baroness’ husband, film maker Keith Taylor, later in the Festival described how they had made their first film together, “Coming to England”, dramatizing her childhood memories; this film was shown at the end of the Festival. The Baroness had earlier spoken with schoolchildren and college students, and paid courtesy visits to the governor and the premier.

Two new books were launched at the Opening, with informative comments by both authors about their writing: “Through my Lens” by David Lea, and “Deported to Paradise” by Edgar Nkosi White. There was also a lively fashion show from Gesiere Smith’s Africana Fashions, as well as a beautiful illustrative video featuring “Still Home, Still Nice” sung by Pat Ryan, a stalwart supporter of the Festival.

During the Festival itself there were sessions with several authors both local and international, including Ann Marie Dewar, who contended that Creole can be more successful than standard English in writing and performing about Caribbean realities; and Professor Sir Howard Fergus who described the emergence of a local volcano literature.

Peepal Tree publisher Jeremy Pointing spoke about author A E “Archie” Markham and his work, as well as explaining how Peepal Press selects books for publication and works with authors (many from the Caribbean), to bring their work into print.

US based author and editor Andrew Skerritt, originally from Montserrat, spoke about memory and “going back”, and its importance in writing. South African author Tony Eprile, reading from his book also touched on memory and its importance in writing, as well as the interplay of race and ethnicity in influencing identity. All these presentations sparked a good discussion from the floor, although more time for this would have been good.

Calypso was not left out, and Trinidadian calypsonian “Short Pants” performed as well as conducting a workshop on calypso writing. In addition he demonstrated to an appreciative audience his skill at “extempo” calypso, where the words and music are created and sung at a moment’s notice on any suggested topic.

Regular Festival features, the winners of the MVO creative writing competition read their winning entries on this year’s theme, “an unforgettable experience”, always a pleasant, informal occasion at the Festival; while the Book Lovers’ Parade featured children dressed as storybook characters, with the help of Miss Montserrat, Sharissa Ryan and the Coral Cay team. There was also a video production by Randall “Randy” Greenaway on the volcanic experience, featuring some of his brilliant volcano songs.

As usual the UWI book stall and Best of Books were there, featuring a fascinating display of Caribbean and other books, as well as a creative local craft stall from the “Last Chance” souvenir shop, creating a pleasant and casual atmosphere and allowing people to browse in between sessions. A beautifully produced souvenir booklet was on sale, and copies are still available from the Open Campus: full of information, most attractive and highly recommended.

A new addition to the Festival was “Word Up”, focusing on young people and organized by Festival and Jaycees Queen Sharissa Ryan and her sister Coretta. The informal show was held at Nanny’s Café (formerly the Lyme) and was open to anyone who would like to perform, whether in singing, poetry or any other creative talent. Also featured was the dance group Matrix. It all fitted in well with the ambience of the new Café, where a young crowd tends to gather.

The Festival was attended by local and overseas fans, some of whom come down every year and would not think of missing this Festival, which gives a unique opportunity to open our minds, and meet and mix with inspiring authors whom one might otherwise never have a chance to know. Those who did not come missed once again an enriching opportunity to broaden their minds and experience something different.

Congratulations to Gracelyn Cassell and her hard working and dedicated staff and volunteers, for bringing off yet once again the Alliouagana Festival of the Word.

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