Terry McMillan, Randall Robinson, David Carty and The Conclusion of A Remarkable Festival

Anguilla Lit Fest: A Literary Jollification, held May 24-28, 2012 on the beautiful Caribbean Island of Anguilla

There are advantages to those times when  – despite your best intentions – you find yourself unable to complete your posts about an event until more than a month after it is over. First, you get to take a little break in the reality you have since resumed to re-immerse yourself in the pleasures of the experience— reflecting on events that you had almost forgotten about already, and thinking again about the eloquent, talented and friendly people that you met.

Distance and time also distill your memories, allowing you to discover which of them are likely to remain most strongly with you into the future – some of which have, indeed, already provided grist for thought at unexpected moments in the middle of your busy daily life.

In the case of my attendance at Anguilla’s first annual (I hope: see note below) Lit Fest, amid a host of jewel-like memories of warm evenings, Caribbean vistas, elegant wine-and cheese receptions, exotic dinners, intriguing cultural presentations, and stimulating conversations, four sessions in particular give me great pleasure to recall:

  • Terry McMillan, author of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting to Exhale, and several other books (and honorary patron of the LitFest), spoke at lunch on the second day of the festival on the topic, So You Want to be a Bestselling Author? The Real Deal. The points Terry offered to new writers included these (in no particular order): 1) true stories of things that “really happened” to you are not as interesting to other people as you think they are –

    Terry McMillan luncheon talk

    they must be given a dramatic structure in order to become good fiction (as an extension of this point, Terry pointed out that her own novels are not autobiographical. They may be similar to what really happened to her, but they have been transformed into fiction); 2) don’t write for other people (i.e., to sell, or to win awards) – write for yourself. Similarly, do not let what the critics say bother you or affect your future work – just keep writing for yourself; 3) fiction writers need to know many, many more details about their characters than they will ever tell their readers; 4) don’t edit while you write; 5) write the way your characters would speak, not to impress your audience – nobody cares how smart you are; 6) stop at the end of the writing day mid-sentence or mid-paragraph so that you don’t have to face a blank page the next day, but can resume your story in the middle of an interesting scene; 7) don’t worry about how the story is going to turn out or what is going to happen next – just write (Terry says she doesn’t like writing screenplays because she knows how everything is going to turn out, which is boh-ring); 8) writing is a journey. Enjoy it! (Note: Terry also did a Master Class called “Honing Your Gift” on Saturday morning. I arrived just as it was concluding and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive. I wish I’d heard it all. If any readers here were there, please add a comment and give us a taste of what she said that day. To the rest: don’t ever pass up an opportunity to listen to Terry McMillan talk about writing – or anything. She’s great!);

  • On the last evening of the Festival David Carty, historian, author, and producer of the documentary film Nuttin Bafflin (“a small community of 5000 former slaves on a tiny island in the North Eastern Caribbean mold the accidents of history with their struggle

    Upstairs at Davida’s, the restaurant where the final evening’s session was held

    for survival and develop a unique brand of boat racing practiced nowhere else on earth”) gave a fascinating and often amusing history of Anguilla and its talented boat-builders. Anguillians have for centuries been known around the world for their skills and talents atbuilding boats, and are fanatical boat racers as a consequence. You can get a sample of Carty’s wonderfully sincere, knowledgeable, intelligent and somehow also light-hearted storytelling style in this video on YouTube;

  • The second and final panel in which I participated was entitled Artists on the Page. It was moderated by the gracious and eloquent Allison Samuels, a senior writer for Newsweek/Daily Beast and author of What Would Michelle Do: A Modern-Day Guide to Living with Substance and Style. The panel featured, in addition to myself, the enthusiastic and inspiring performer-authors Hill Harper and Sheryl Lee Ralph. We all agreed that you have to make time in your life to fit the writing in, no matter what else you are doing (Hill says he writes on tv and movie sets while he’s waiting for his scenes), and that writing provides a way of interpreting (and sometimes escaping from) the vicissitudes of life. Both Hill (e.g., The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in its Place) and Sheryl (Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From The Original Dreamgirl) have written books in which they have drawn from their own experiences, challenges and triumphs to inspire and motivate readers;
  • Last but certainly not least, Randall Robinson was an absolute joy to listen to. He spoke of major issues that face African Americans and those living in the Diaspora today in such a knowledgeable and eloquent way that it became for all of us listening a call to action… although I am not sure what I as an overly white Canadian can do to

    Randall Robinson speaks at the Thought Leaders’ Luncheon. Topic, “We Are One: Writing About The Diaspora”

    help, except listen, learn, hope to understand, and remain open to opportunities to help other people to understand. Randall Robinson is so well spoken and gentle in his delivery (you can see a fine example here, at a book launch at Hue-Man Books in NYC, where he delivers a mesmerizing first-hand account of the coup that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti in 2004, and the Haitian history that provides context for that event) but you know and hear that he is outraged and determined in his heart. He loves his people and – despite the gains that were made in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement – he despairs at the current portrayal in the media of so many African Americans as dysfunctional parents, drug addicts and criminals. Among the points he made that were very interesting to me because I’d never thought of them before was this: he talked about how in the community where he’d grown up, the teachers and lawyers and preachers and store-keepers lived across the street from and next door to the prostitutes, low-wage workers, and the unemployed. When integration began, it was those who were professionals and had money who moved “uptown,” leaving the less educated and the poor behind. This phenomenon, repeated across the U.S., has contributed to the current situation where the “black communities” today tend to be poor areas with major socio-economic problems. That is just one example of the many insights I gained from listening to Randall’s talks, and I am looking forward to reading his novel, Makeda – which he said he wrote in part to address the fact that one of the major losses experienced by African Americans during slavery was their history. (The New York Journal of Books said, “Makeda is beyond ambitious and imaginative . . . well written and powerful, with an ending that is equal parts tragic and romantic in nature . . . a breathtaking revelation, weighted with romance and lovely passionate prose.”) Update Josveek Huligar has posted this clip from Randall Robinson’s Anguilla writing workshop on YouTube.

There are other people I want to talk about more in future who I met at the Lit Fest in Anguilla, and I hope to do profiles of them and their books. In the meantime, I only wish that more of you could have attended. Even though I have been writing fiction for more than thirty years now, it left me feeling fresh and new and eager to get back to my fiction. And it was no passing whim: more than a month later, thinking about that weekend still provides me with real motivation to get back to work on my next novel.

Mary and Terry, final evening


(Note re: the “first-annual-ness” of the Anguilla Lit Fest – while everyone who attended would, I believe, love to see this become an annual event, it takes a lot of work and a lot of money to put on a splendiferous literary festival like this one was, and Anguilla is a small island with a limited number of volunteers. So keep your fingers crossed — or, if you’re in the region, contact the Anguilla Tourist Board and see if there is anything you can do to help.

Thanks to Gerald A. Riskin for files and photos

Anguilla from the air, en route back to St. Maarten and thence to Miami and Toronto.

On the beach, after the festival was over. Anguilla.

Anguilla Lit Fest: Day One, Breakfast Presentation by Lasana Sekou, Hill Harper and Sheryl Lee Ralph

Okay, so it’s not really Day One any more. I admit it. The whole conference is over. But since Anguilla’s first lit fest really got underway on Friday morning at the magnificent Paradise Cove Resort, I’ve been going, going, going – which left no time for blogging, blogging, blogging. On both Friday and Saturday, I had a couple of hours off each afternoon, and I came back to my room planning to take a nap before dinner because I was too tired to move. But I could not nap: my mind was going a thousand miles a minute. That’s the sign of a great literary festival and conference.

I’m going to tell you about all the sessions and receptions I attended (and show you pictures) but it’s probably going to take me all week or even longer, mostly because if I write about more than one session at a time, the post will be too long. Plus there were a few people who weren’t even on the agenda who knocked me flat, and I want to tell you about them, too. I feel like this festival has changed something deep inside me and I hope I can convey some of the magic to you: one session at a time. (You can subscribe to this blog if you want an email when the next posts are up.)

Friday morning’s Rise and Shine breakfast session featured three readers: Lasana Sekou, Hill Harper and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Lasana Sekou is a poet and prose writer from St. Martin who I hope will come and read in Toronto  (and elsewhere in Canada) someday (he’s been on reading lists at York and Keyano College, so he is almost a Canadian already). Lasana has published ten books of poetry, monologues and short stories, and he is a performance poet par excellence. He has been translated into Spanish, Dutch and German and has won numerous awards – including a knighthood from the Dutch Kingdom. Clearly indefatigable, he is also the driving force behind the St. Martin House of Nehesi Publishers and an advocate for St. Martin independence.

First, Lasana read a short piece of prose (claiming that it was too early in the morning to be a poet) but then he launched into the poem that is also featured in this YouTube video; entitled “Visit and Fellowship II” (“i&i in eternal seeding time”), it is  from his book The Salt Reaper: Songs from the Flats:

After that reading, everybody was not only wide awake but had fires in their bellies, as I am sure you can imagine. (Lasana told me later that the YouTube performance had been at a literary festival in Colombia – the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín – which brought out such huge crowds that it blew away the minds of the presenters as it must have also done the attendees.)

Hill Harper was up next. He talked about what drove him to write Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny, which was inspired by Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (which I agree that everyone who is the least bit interested in writing anything – or just living a full life – should read). Hill Harper is not just another pretty face. He is a very bright man – he attended Harvard Law School with a guy named Barack Obama. He found that when he was doing talks as a part of his CSI:NY work, young black men would come up to him afterwards and tell him they were inspired by him, and they would tell him some of their challenges and ask him for advice. He also got thousands of emails from black youth. He began to realize that the questions were falling into categories, and that is when he began to create the outline for his first book.

Hill’s book might have been written for young black men, but it will inspire people of all ages, colours and creeds. After listening to his first chapter, which was about believing in yourself but learning from your forebears (“You are the perfect product of 15 billion years of evolution …. I respect that and you should too. Let go of those other people’s voices in your head … anybody who ever said your dreams were not possible”), which I was mentally applying to the writing process, I wanted nothing more than to find a pen and paper and get to work on my next book.

Sheryl Lee Ralph added a tasty and compelling garnish to this literary power breakfast when she spoke to the inner diva in all of us and read from her memoir, Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From The Original Dream Girl. An actor, singer and activist as well as a writer (and an avid tweeter with 20,500 followers), Sheryl Lee was the original Deena Jones in Broadway’s production of Dreamgirls, where her performance earned her a Tony for Best Actress. The Kirkus Review calls her book “an engrossing story of a woman who challenged Hollywood and its limited roles for black women.”

Sheryl Lee explained that to her, DIVA is an acronym for “Divine, Inspired, Victorious and Anointed,” and she believes that we should use our diva power for good instead of evil. She is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and creator of The Diva Foundation for AIDS/HIV Awareness.

Here’s one passage from her funny and moving reading: “My kind of Diva is woman enough to love herself to the very core of her being… She respects herself and those around her. She is a role model. My kind of Diva is changing the world in big and small ways. And yes, she looks good doing it!

Sheryl Lee is a firecracker, and after her reading, we were ready to rip into the first session of the festival, “Writing is Just the Beginning: The New Publishing Rules.” Which I will tell you about in the next post. :)

Right now (Sunday noon), I am going to the beach.

Anguilla Lit Fest: Champion Pursuit of Literacy

May 24, 2012, 6 p.m.

On Thursday afternoon, many of the authors from the Anguilla Lit Fest met with school children from Anguilla to talk about our experiences as writers, and to answer their questions. The sessions were held at the Anguilla Library, and students were bused or walked to the site from various schools on the island. The students had been well prepared for their encounters — one girl in my group had even prepared an eloquent thank you speech which she delivered at the conclusion of my presentation.

I was most impressed with the students, their teachers, and the librarians — who had created displays on the bulletin boards about each writer and his/her books. Another great event!

Actor/author Hill Harper fires up a group of primary school children with enthusiasm for reading and writing during one of the Anguilla Lit Fest student-author sessions

Writers Terry MacMillan and Hill Harper encourage a young Anguillian student who has questions about writing. Malaika Adero, Vice President and Senior Editor, Simon and Shuster Atria Books, and library staff look on.

Anguilla’s First Ever Literary Arts Festival: A Jollification

I am honoured to have been invited to be a panelist at

Anguilla’s First Ever Literary Arts Festival: A Jollification..

The guest speakers include:

Hill Harper, Author/Actor
Terry McMillan, Author/Professor
Randall Robinson, Author
Malaika Adero, Author/Publisher
Crystal McCrary, Author/Editor
Lasana Sekou, Author/Publisher
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Author/Actress
David Carty, Historian
Amy Berkower, Author, Agent (USA/Anguilla)
et moi

May 25 to 27, Anguilla, BWI (in the Caribbean)

Come one, come all.
Here is the itinerary.