Thank you to Dr. Heather Smyth (on right) and Dr. Veronica Austen (on left) for this guest blog post about their participation in the recent 2013 Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies conference, held in St. Lucia. –JLH
Heather: So what was your favourite part of the conference? Let’s talk about the academic matters first and then reminisce about the amazing venue.
Veronica: Nice. . . you’re right, we should probably talk work before making everyone jealous that working on postcolonial literature sometimes takes you to places like St. Lucia! As I imagine you’ll agree, there were so many highlights that it’s difficult to name just a few, but I think I’ll start with all the writers that we got to meet and hear read. Getting to hear Earl Lovelace (Dragon Can’t Dance) read from his latest Is Just a Movie AND laugh at his own jokes was wonderful (as was getting to talk with him at the opening Prime Minister’s reception, but more on the “venue” part later). Derek Walcott’s answering of a question about the ills of tourism with a curmudgeonly ‘that topic is done; Oh grow up!’ was also quite fun. The silence in the room as Edward Baugh, who in many ways was one of the greats who made the study of Caribbean literature possible, read his poetry: I’ll never forget that (see “Sometimes in the Middle of the Story” and you’ll get a sense of what we experienced live). And of course our frolleague’s “Fast Talking PI” (see Selina Tusitala Marsh) was a huge highlight! All told though, I think my favourite moment might have been hearing Barbara Jenkins reading “I Never Heard Pappy Play the Hawaiian Guitar” (from Sic Transit Wagon and Other Stories). Hers was my favourite reading because she surprised me the most; I had never heard of her and she’s a writer who has just now started writing after having lost her husband in their 50’s and having retired from teaching. I’ve been reading her collection of stories since I got home from the conference, so her work with its lovely portrayal of childhood’s confusions and hardships seems to be what I’ve most taken away from the conference (that plus the instructions she gave us for making cocoa tea better than what our hotel was serving!).
So, how about you? What were some of your conference highlights? I have a feeling you might mention something about a birth, no? (-:
Heather: Yes! I’m glad you started with a focus on writing and publishing, as that was a really important thread throughout the whole week: not just as the subject of the papers but also the lunchtime creative writing performances and the book launches that took place almost every day. I’ll talk a bit about how well-chosen the keynote speakers and topics were. Michael Bucknor the Chair of ACLALS and lead organizer, decided to frame the conference as both a tribute to the tradition of commonwealth/postcolonial criticism—the triumvirate of Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (The Empire Writes Back) were a strong presence there—and also a spotlight on the newest generation of scholars. Two of the most memorable keynote papers I’ve ever seen were given by scholars at an early stage in their careers: Omaar Hena from Wake Forest University, North Carolina, gave a great keynote on Walcott’s Omeros and the energy was just crackling: he made fascinating connections between the economy of words in poetry and the global economy of capitalist colonialism, and he had the audience on-side too with his refreshing enthusiasm and excitement about his work. At one point he was hopping up and down trying to wait until a questioner finished speaking, so eager was he to engage. [Veronica: And one of our colleagues later told us that she saw him on the beach AFTER his plenary reading Omeros yet again! That’s how into it he was!] And then Phanuel Antwi from St. Mary’s University gave a keynote that we’ll be talking about for years: he sang, he asked the audience questions like we were students, and then he gave birth. No, not literally, but he gave a riveting full-commitment performance of Lillian Allen’s “Birth Poem” as a demonstration of the feminism and bodiliness of dub poetry—performing the breathing and gasping of a woman in labour as cued by Allen’s words on the page. So many of the papers at the conference were really engaging and useful—including yours of course!—but those two keynotes will really stay in my memory.
Now, even though we worked ourselves to the bone attending (almost) all the sessions, we did get to spread our wings a bit. Do you want to talk a bit about the location?
Veronica: Who could resist talking about the location? In fact, a photo to make everyone drool:
This is the view from part way up one of the peaks on Pigeon Island. The conference was held at the Sandals resort which is just to the right outside of the frame. Can’t beat the scenery, yes? . . . although as many of us discussed at the conference, having a postcolonial-themed conference at a Sandals resort was rather odd. With its celebration of the kind of tourism that tends to exploit rather than engage in local cultures, Sandals was definitely a nice place to get to leave at the end of the conference sessions each day. Of course, we only got to leave AFTER they unlocked the gates! Nothing like putting a bunch of postcolonial scholars in a situation that made us ever so aware of how tourism creates barriers between classes, races, cultures. To have our own mobility limited offered an unintended but important lesson.
Now in addition to this bit of a learning experience that the conference site itself offered, what about some of our other experiences? Getting to attend an opening night reception at the Prime Minister of St. Lucia’s official residence was pretty amazing, yes? What about some of the other things we did: our visit to Derek Walcott Square or to the Catholic Church in Castries, for instance, or maybe our attending the Caribbean opening of Derek Walcott’s new play Oh, Starry, Starry Night (News story about the event) in an open air theatre?
Heather: We had a great, albeit very hot, day in Castries, checking out the market and Derek Walcott Square, and a wonderful last day when we commissioned a van to take a group of us slowly down the west coast to see Soufriere, the twin mountains called the Pitons, the botanical gardens, and the drive-in volcano. I think pictures would be the best way to tell about all that. All-in-all, a wonderful experience!
Veronica: So, who’s on for ACLALS 2016 in South Africa?