“Start them right, to make them bright” is a good slogan, and I intend to purloin it from the Jamaicans.
From the moment the very youthful, Jamaican Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, the Hon Floyd Green, got to the podium last week in Kingston to kick off a one-day symposium (marking 70 years of the Jamaica Library Service) and espoused all the reasons why we need our own literature, I felt encouraged. Green knew his Derek Walcott and how to find his way around any library and he was unequivocal about why we needed libraries and about the pivotal role they played in his growing up.
It was heartening to hear an MP acknowledge publicly that not just the arts, but the literary arts in particular, are critical to creativity and to sustaining a society. The minister was definitely no puppet and I no Svengali but he echoed the belief of every writer, publisher, librarian, teacher, and cultural activist like myself, who understands the importance of reading non-text books for developing critical thinking and cognitive skills in young minds, skills that fast-changing modern technology demands, especially for our marginalised and vulnerable island nations. The MP called for more platforms for Caribbean literature and ways of getting culturally relevant books, by our writers, into the hands of undernourished young brains. Scientific evidence shows that early readers, who enjoy stories because they were read to while very young, perform much better at school and in life. Knowing the eternal value of reading to toddlers, Green was disappointed when he went looking for pre-school literature for his own young child and could find too little that was related to the Caribbean experience.
Politicians often cannot deliver on their promises but it helps that, at least, they prove they understand situations and believe in the need to improve them. I have mentioned it in this column before that we are the only country in the region, in fact in the entire Americas, that last year was levying full VAT on non-text books, because some misguided person in our Ministry of Finance erroneously believes that a non-school book is a luxury, an unessential item, peripheral to human development and should therefore attract VAT. Amazingly, our deeply impoverished Caricom neighbours who really need the relatively tiny revenue that VAT on books might provide forego that revenue stream. In TT we should interrogate the definition of a “good education” because we are not encouraging people to read enough of a wide range of books to educate ourselves properly. To give the State the benefit of the doubt, maybe the bureaucrats are trying to push people towards our excellent libraries and feel that people should not be buying books as the State has provided them through Nalis. But, Nalis had a moratorium on book purchases because of budgeting constraints and I don’t suppose the recent budget would have altered that.
And what about the publishing industry? Maybe the people in the Ministry of Finance ought to speak to those in the Ministry of Trade and Industry about how to stimulate a sector through tax incentives. Now that we are experiencing a marked increase in the number of emerging writers who are being published regionally and internationally and are on shortlists for many top international prizes it is not the time to have introduced a disincentive to reading our own world class literature that is so admired by others and so devalued by our
That kind of incoherent economic planning perverts the work of those of us in NGOs who are trying to advance our people. Fortunately, the Bocas Lit Fest has international partners such as Canadian charity CODE which each year funds a prize that writers from all over the region enter for Can$14,000 in prize money, plus their young adult novel being published by a Caribbean publisher and a guaranteed purchase of 2,500 copies of each of the three winning books freely distributed to libraries, schools and community programmes throughout the region. Since we started in 2014, an incredible 37,000 books by new Caribbean writers have been put into the hands of hundreds of thousands of young people who also get to meet the authors. Only in TT do those books cost more in bookshops because of VAT. It would make sense to remove VAT on books by Caribbean publishers and stimulate demand, giving a fillip to the industry.
Maybe our Ministry of Finance believes the book is dead, but Amazon is opening mega bookstores in the US because books are not going anywhere just yet – they are too important. E-books are no longer closing down bookshops either. Today new books come in three formats simultaneously: paperback, e-version and audiobook. Given a proper chance, the world of Caribbean publishing could also enter this exciting new chapter.