An avid reader, a lover of Caribbean literature, Trinidad and Tobago-born and raised Marsha Massiah, brought her passion for the stories of the region with her when she migrated to the United States. These stories served as her voice, helping to ground her in this new environment called Brooklyn, New York.
It was in these streets peppered with the varying cadences of Caribbean people who now called this place home that Massiah founded the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival in 2019 to keep alive the stories she grew up with.
“Sometimes you have to leave the place that you're from to really know who you are, and also to appreciate all of your inputs. Because truly a profit is about honouring his own country. I think I learned who a Caribbean person was when I moved to the United States. And if there's been any one thing that has given me the ability to move with a great deal of confidence through this society, is the place that I'm from Trinidad and Tobago, and all of the other islands for which I share heritage,” said a proud Massiah, the festival’s Founder and Executive Director in a chat with Caribbean Today.
It is with this spirit that Massiah decided to create a literary platform for Caribbean writers noting that she could not find books by Samuel Selvon, V.S. Naipaul, or Everard Palmer at Barnes & Noble bookstores. These writers, and so many more, told stories about her experiences, stories she could relate to. She also wanted to steep her young son in these stories as he began to question his identity growing up in America surrounded by Caribbean folk.
With this hunger, something clicked in 2019 as she read three books by Caribbean writers in succession — Lauren Francis-Sharma’s Til the Well Runs Dry, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad by Krystal Sital, and one by Edwidge Danticat.
“There was a distinct voice of a Caribbean American person. So I started searching to find answers about being Caribbean American. All these voices writing luminous examples of what’s possible but still being very much anchored to the colonial outpost. But they were all being banded under the banner of being Black American. We are subset of Black American, but we are also something else.”
Massiah’s literary search began in March 2019, and in September that same year the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival was born.
“In addition to shining a light on the writers and creating this umbrella for everybody to gather, we need to find a way to cultivate new storytellers. They are fearless in telling the stories from the unique lens of our heritage and our perspective. So, it's very monomaniacal in focus, my passion, my commitment, and my audacious belief in the power of the Caribbean story,” insisted Massiah.
This year marks the Festival’s 5th edition which took place September 7-10. With renowned writers and creatives such as Jamaica Kincaid, Elizabeth Nunez, Velma Pollard, Tanya Batson-Savage, P. Djeli Clark, Kai Miller, Barbara Jenkins, and so many more, the festival has become an annual literary staple attracting book lovers from across the five
New York boroughs. All the islands across the region are celebrated through panel discussions, workshops, poetry readings, film screenings at various locations in Brooklyn.
With limited resources, the literary festival has survived, grown, and is still thriving because of the tenacity of its Founder, along with Founding Partner/Director of Operations Mellany Paynter and Melissa Harper, Director of Logistics/Assistant Director of Programming. Even the pandemic stimulated growth, allowing for greater reach through virtual events. But, the publishing industry is still very insular said Massiah.
“The publishing industry, they throw their money behind white writers, and may choose the one black writer as a token. We have been told, we don’t have the budget for these writers. But, it’s the politics of tokenism, colorism, racism, sexism.”
“So we, in our own little way, have decided to take over some of this work. Our mission is to get Caribbean people to support Caribbean writers. Most of the books our writers sell are not bought by Caribbean people. So, we're inviting Caribbean people to be part of the movement,” Massiah added.
And that movement continues to grow with the Festival’s creative Cocoa Pod podcast series that features authors narrating their stories in their unique accents. Workshops to improve writing craft is also growing. All this thanks to donors and sponsors, the lion share coming from communities and organizations outside of Caribbean culture, which concerns Massiah.
“We complain about appropriation, but we are not good gatekeepers, we are not good stewards. We have something valuable. The gate is open, somebody else is gonna come take it. We are asking Caribbean people to pick up the mantle, to support the enshrining of our literature… We are in the publishing capital of the world, we are in New York. We are in Brooklyn that boasts the highest concentration of Caribbean people. Why not take advantage of all of that.”