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: Welcome Reception for Guests

Last evening the owners of the magnificent Ultimacy Villa Retreat on Anguilla’s north shore hosted a reception for the organizing committee, speakers and guests at Anguilla’s First Lit Fest, which officially starts today.

I sat at a table with Allison Samuels, award-winning Newsweek writer and author of What Would Michelle Do, and actress, singer, activist and author Sheryl Lee Ralph, along with several other interesting Anguillians and visitors. I listened with great interest to a passionate conversation about television portrayal of black women in America and black female role models in general, and learned a lot, but then I was able to throw in a thought or two of my own when the exchange expanded to include movies and television in general and gradually dissolved into efforts to remember the titles of various ancient and recent shows and films and actors who’d been in them — such as the name of the woman who played the daughter of Bea Arthur on Maude (Adrienne Barbeau) and who starred with Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love (Steve Carell).

I also had the privilege to talk to Marva Allen of the famous Hue-Man Bookstore in NYC, and btw, she highly recommends the new book by past US poet laureate Rita Dove.

The live music was fantastic. The band is Anguillian but I’m sure they will be heard far beyond these shores before long. They are called British Dependency. Here’s a sample:

Everyone here is warm, welcoming and friendly, and all of us are excited about this fantastic event that they have put on for the next three days.

This afternoon we’re off to talk to students from Anguilla schools about writing as part of the Champion Literacy initiative.

More soon…