Bocas 2020: Challenges, benefits of a virtual literary festival

Four-year-old author Coryn Anaya Clarke, second from right, who will be participating in the Children's Bocas Lit Fest venture during the online festival, with her parents Dionne Baptiste-Clarke, second from left, Ron Clarke, right, and director of NGC Children's Bocas Lit Fest Danielle Delon.  -
Four-year-old author Coryn Anaya Clarke, second from right, who will be participating in the Children's Bocas Lit Fest venture during the online festival, with her parents Dionne Baptiste-Clarke, second from left, Ron Clarke, right, and director of NGC Children's Bocas Lit Fest Danielle Delon. -

THE tenth edition of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest was originally scheduled for May and would have included the regular meeting and mingling of writers, readers and publishers. But then came the covid19 pandemic and this forced an adaptation to a virtual festival.

Newsday spoke with festival founder and Newsday columnist Marina Salandy-Brown about the many challenges and some of the benefits of the new format as the weekend-long festival begins today.

To be or not to be

Salandy-Brown said owing to the pandemic, uncertainty was the big issue and the Bocas Lit Fest team did not decide to hold a virtual festival until quite late.

"A festival is supposed to be 'festive.' It is hard to conjure festivity with a virtual screen that is flat and one-dimensional. And how do you have a festival without people?"

The original festival dates of May 1-3 were postponed to September, when organisers hoped the covid19 situation would be better and they could have some semblance of a "real festival." They initially hoped to have a combination of a virtual and a physical festival, but it soon became clear that would not be possible.

Salandy-Brown also had the personal challenge of her own health. She had a leg operation earlier this year and spent many months recovering and then the covid19 pandemic struck.

This year has also been a very bad one for writers because of the pandemic. She said Ingrid Persaud was supposed to tour every single major literary festival in Britain with her new novel Love After Love, but covid19 meant all the festivals were virtual. Bocas Lit Fest was also planning a "Carnival of Caribbean Writers" who would be showcased at British festivals as part of the Lit Fest's tenth-year celebration, but that did not happen.

Marina Salandy-Brown -

She also said OCM Bocas Prize winner Monique Roffey was supposed to tour with her new book, The Mermaid of Black Conch, but that was also cancelled.

"For writers, covid19 has been a disaster. Their books have not bombed, but they have not sold as many copies (as they could have)."

Salandy-Brown could not cancel the festival, as the sponsors had pledged money and she had her small and dedicated team to think of as well. So the team moved ahead, and the shift to virtual was a "scramble," but a planned one.

She added the fact it was their tenth year actually "saved" them. She explained Bocas Lit Fest had been increasingly having activities over the course of the year and people have been calling for collaborations.

"We already turned into a year-round literary agency."

The events include Bios and Bookmarks, a weekly Facebook Live series, and Bring Your Own Book and Bottle, which has become a book club for people all over the world. From 2019 they planned to have events over the course of 2020 and the festival would be scaled down from five days to three days.

"When the pandemic struck we were kind of ready."

Going virtual

The festival would normally have 100 events and about 100 participants but with this year's virtual format there will be 18 events and about 80 participants. Salandy-Brown said they had to scrap the physical programme planned for the May festival and do a completely new programme for September.

"Not all elements could be saved."

Bocas Lit Fest did have a "mini-festival" where it awarded its two major prizes: the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize for emerging writers which was won by TT writer Amanda Choo Quan; and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, which was won by Trinidadian-born, British Virgin Islands-resident Richard Georges for his poetry collection Epiphaneia. The announcement of both prizes was done online.

Salandy-Brown said with a physical festival the issue would have been sorting out the writers and putting them on panels, individual readings and interviews. And this was a process she and her team had "down pat." But for a virtual festival it was really a technical challenge and they had to put their faith in the technical team from Friday to Sunday, which is difficult for the "control freaks."

Amanda Choo Quan, winner of the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize 2020. -

She said, however, it was fantastic the way her team was able to adapt and it was a very exciting process for them.

"They were able to turn around quickly. And we have a done a relatively good job."

She explained the festival is an international one and includes people from around the Caribbean and in the diaspora.

"We had to test people's computers, their sound quality and picture. Without good picture and sound you could not have a festival."

And through pre-recording events the Bocas Lit Fest team became like a film production team and had exposure to other media. One of the pre-recorded events is an hour-long dramatic reading of Merle Hodge's Crick, Crack Monkey, which celebrates 50 years, directed by Elisha Efua Bartels.

The events, including the Children's Bocas Lit Fest, will be a mix of pre-recorded and live events, broadcast on three platforms: YouTube, Facebook and via its website. The flip guide and daily programme were all put on the Bocas website. The annual First Citizens National Poetry Slam, which is normally held on the last day of the festival, has been moved to September 27 and will be aired on TV6.

Actors Conrad Parris, left, and Isoke Efia Edwards during a staged dramatic reading of Merle Hodge's Crick Crack, Monkey as part of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2020. -

On the negative side of the virtual festival, booksellers who would normally attend and see a spike in their sales will loseout. And because none of the guests are physically coming in, there is also the loss to tourism, as there are no flights and no hotel visits. The writers will also not be able to engage with their audiences in person.

But covid19 and the move to a virtual festival has had some positives. Salandy-Brown said the biggest gain was in terms of reaching a wider audience of readers, writers and publishers. She said the NGC Bocas Lit Fest has been livestreamed for the past five years and people abroad have been increasingly tuning in. But this year's festival has been promoted as a virtual festival locally, regionally and internationally.

"It will multiply our audience 800 per cent."

This potentially greatly expanded exposure is also a plus for the festival's sponsors as they will have much more opportunity to display their support, and for writers, who can creach many more people with their books.

The NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2020 will be held from September 18-20. For more information you can check out


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