Bocas president: Festival keeps on growing

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A report by Julien Neaves for Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday.

The Caribbean’s premier literary festival turns ten this year and in commemoration of this milestone Newsday Senior Reporter Julien Neaves is doing a three-part series of articles. In this second of three articles we chat with Bocas Lit Fest president Rani Lakhan-Narace about the past and the future of the festival.

TWO years ago Trinre Insurance executive chairman Rani Lakhan-Narace was asked to serve on the board of the Bocas Lit Fest as an independent director. Having been familiar with Bocas’ achievements through the press she was truly honoured to be asked.

“It gave me an opportunity to learn about the remarkable work of its founder, Marina Salandy-Brown and her team, whilst contributing to the board’s desire for institutional strengthening.”

Then one year ago she was asked to take over from Salandy-Brown as president.

“I felt humbled by the realisation that the board had such confidence in me, since most of the directors at the time had been there since its inception. I consider it a huge responsibility and privilege to play a lead role in the sustainability of such a precious NGO that has, in a short space of time, established a world-class literary festival, while building a magnificent legacy by achieving an international reputation for local and regional writers.”

She felt great satisfaction watching the continuous growth of Bocas as it expanded its horizons beyond the festival and beyond the country’s shores into year-round education and events which will take place here and abroad.

The festival, she noted, started off as one for adults and a parallel one for children, a children’s storytelling caravan, and a major literary prize but added very quickly festivals in South and Tobago, promoting new Caribbean literature and offering writing workshops to those who could not come to the festival. Several important prizes were added that have helped writers be discovered and set them on their careers when there were no such vehicles for them.

“At the same time we worked with children to develop the love of reading, we did advocacy regionally and internationally, and worked alongside UWI and Nalis, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts with the parallel focus of increasing readers for our writers work.”

She explained the festival has been strategic in understanding that a festival alone could not build TT’s literary arts nationally or regionally and has sought to address every element in the ecosystem.

“And this has been done all on limited human and financial resources. Everything we do drives the success of the festival and grows the audiences. The festival is more than a long weekend of great events – one of the top 20 in the world – it is the shop window of an industrious year-round agency with big ambition that has become internationally respected and admired and often used as a case study.”

She noted that she is a non-executive president with Salandy-Brown as managing director.

“As such, I lead the board in providing the proper oversight of Bocas’s strategic direction, and robust governance for its sustainable success. As you well know, NGOs rely on external funding and Bocas has done phenomenally in this regard, with a title sponsor like NGC (National Gas Company), together with other corporate sponsors who understand and appreciate the value of our work.”

Bocas Lit Fest is currently in the process of completing a three-year strategic plan that focuses on financial sustainability, succession planning and expansion to guide our plans for the future.

“Greater revenue generation is critical to the organisation’s growth and reach in realising its vision of a successful, multi-location festival and a community of diverse Caribbean writers, who are well represented around the world.”

Lakhan-Narace said a full programme of events at The Writers Centre (TWC) at Alcazar Street, Port of Spain, is a new venture that gives their work a year-round shopfront.

“The doors are always open to everyone with regular free events as we must discard the idea of some that reading and writing are ‘elitist’ pursuits and that the organisation is therefore the same. The festival is free and held in a public building with something for every taste, from spoken word and extempo to readings by the very best culturally diverse writers and poets, and the cheapest writing workshops on the planet! We are expanding that spirit to TWC.”

As part of the tenth anniversary celebrations later this year the festival will include for the first time Caribbean writers with new books taking part in several UK literary festivals this year plus special events at the British Library, Oxford University and the University of East Anglia.

“We are very pleased about this as it grows the platform and audience for our literature. More readers means more books sold, more work for our writers and more books for us all to enjoy, which can in turn be converted to plays and movies, thereby fuelling the arts and the economy simultaneously.”

The festival will be held from September 18-20, having been postponed from May due to the covid19 pandemic.

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