Thursday, 18 November 2010 06:55
By Joanne C Hillhouse
“Of course we’re disappointed that Pam Grier didn’t show up, but also I think generally at the events we seem to get the same people who come every year, we don’t seem to be attracting any new local people which, for me, was disappointing;
(but) I was extremely happy and pleased with the way it worked with the children.” That was essentially how Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival (ABILF) co-founder Joy Bramble summed up the 2010 event, which ran from November 4 to 7. On the plus side - lots of youth participation (and she later added, quality authors), on the minus side a disappointing public turnout and a festival headliner no-show that ended up costing them money.
These comments came during an interview/festival postmortem with Caribarena.com.
Started in 2006, the ABILF is the brainchild of two sisters, Montserrat-born Bramble and Pamela Arthurton - one a Baltimore based newspaper editor and the other an Antigua-based travel executive. When they started, it had a tourism slant and an agenda that involved assisting with the library rebuilding process. But these days, they are shifting focus, and have made significant contributions to the library, if not the building fund.
But they believe that the festival has lit a spark. Since its beginning, festivals have popped up in Dominica, St Lucia, Montserrat, Grenada, and, forthcoming, in Trinidad and Barbados. Clearly, the idea of a festival built around books and the spoken word has caught on. To go the distance though, governments, sponsors, and the general public need to buy in.
The ABILF organisers have come to believe that it must begin with the youth. Youth or youth related activities this year included the Children’s Reading Convocation; the Pearson sponsored Leading to Reading – Read to Succeed Workshop, which reportedly attracted over 100 parents and teachers; youth participation courtesy of Zee’s Youth Theatre and the Young Poets Society of Antigua and Barbuda in the poetry night, alongside the likes of Lorna Goodison and Grace Nichols; Youth Day, which included the Friends of Antigua Public Library’s short story and art awards; and the Western Union sponsored children’s tent at the festival village.
“The Thursday one was really fantastic,” Arthurton said, “the schools who accepted came and then some who didn’t accept showed up, and some of the schools then sent extra teachers, and the authors were over-awed by the orderliness and the extreme participation in a positive way of all of the kids. So, I would say that was a huge success.”
The huge flop was the Pam Grier fundraising dinner, a financial blow to the event. The organisers are still scratching their heads over exactly what happened, especially after they changed travel plans, at great cost, to accommodate a change in Grier's schedule. The plane ticket, promotional costs, 250 books they brought in for the event, and ticket sales are among the losses. Their final word on that episode is a firm resolve: “No more celebrities, no more Hollywood types."
And perhaps, time may tell on this, no big tourism push as well. “We feel as if we’re being forced to abandon the tourism aspect of it,” Athurton said. “We’re being embraced now by the teachers and the schools and the Ministry of Education, especially Ms (Victoria) Edghill (the language arts co-ordinator).” On the flipside, they do feel that the government as a whole has bought into the festival, in fact did fund it for two years, and sees the value in it, even if the current economic situation limits its ability to back that up. But as they learned with the change of tourism ministers between one festival and the next, the level of active interest can boil down to personalities.
“We were promised a certain amount of co-operation from the Tourist Board, which we definitely did not get,” Arthurton said. “In terms of helping us to negotiate with the airlines for instance … if they really felt that the festival warranted this they could have … given them a little push. We weren’t asking for free tickets, you know, we were merely asking for promotional rates … as it is, we had no money.
Luckily for us at the last minute the government did come up with a fraction of the grant (previously approved by Cabinet).”
They feel that one of the biggest misconceptions is that the festival is rolling in cash when organizers often had to dip into their own pockets to cover expenses, and the only (nominally) paid worker is the festival manager. “We’re not making any money,” Arthurton insisted. “It’s costing us money.”
Looking ahead, in addition to building on the youth events, they are hoping to make the Saturday event, the festival village, more festive – ie more like a fair to pull a bigger crowd. And streamlining the festival’s focus overall may help overcome the financial and management challenges. As, Bramble said, “once we figure out who our market is and exactly what we’re doing and we’re not trying to bring all these thousand people down here, we’re trying to do something with what’s there, I think it’ll make a big difference.” They hope to raise funds throughout the year towards keeping it an annual part of the national calendar.
The organisers realise as well the need to work on communication. For instance, with respect to the cancellation due to poor attendance of the Saturday morning sessions with students and teachers, festival manager KC Nash said, “I think it didn’t get communicated well to the teachers and students … we’d done a little bit more with that in 2008; it’s just a matter of communication basically.”
They link this though to not having enough personnel to do the kind of follow-up that needs to be done. “Every year we start off with a whole group of people that say they’re going to volunteer,” Nash said, “but as we hold the meetings and we start trying to assign the jobs, less and less people show up to meetings. Once you start trying to assign the jobs, they disappear. We need people that will take projects and go with them and not have to run back constantly (to) have us tell them what to do, give them direction.”
Those projects can involve grant writing for funding, following up with the teachers and students for the school activities, marketing etc – not just pitching ideas, but hands to the wheel and getting it done. When it came down to it this year, all hands on deck amounted to about three hands. That said, where people do volunteer or express interest, they have acknowledged the need for better follow up on their part.
The festival has, they believe, the potential to help nurture the next generation of writers, has a proven record for creating linkages between some of the more established authors and budding writers – and for those who would take up the opportunity, there’s room to learn more about the craft of writing and the publishing industry. Mostly though, they are psyched about what it can do for the youth, from giving them the opportunity to interact with authors they may be studying to nurturing their literary talents. “I think we have the nugget here of something that’s getting ready to take off but maybe in a different way,” Bramble said, “but sometimes we have to do things until it finds its footing.”
Have feedback/ideas for the future of the festival? Want to volunteer to help? Email them at
. Bramble said, “I’m a firm believer in listening to what people say if the idea makes sense. We’re very, very open to ideas; and we want to be very inclusive but we can only be inclusive if people offer their services; and we’ve thrown the net out and we’d like people to respond.