In Conversation with Marsha Massiah-Aaron

As a continuation of my special series for Caribbean American Heritage month and Read Caribbean month, I’m pleased to highlight this powerful ally of Caribbean literature: the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival (BCLF), a committed supporter of Caribbean books and storytelling led by its founder Marsha Massiah-Aaron.

Marsha and her team are small and mighty: they organize a yearly literary festival that showcases and celebrates the Caribbean experience in all of its unique storytelling forms, they host conversations with Caribbean authors in conjunction with the Center for Fiction, and produce a podcast called CocoaPod where Caribbean writers narrate their own work.  

A visionary who relies heavily on her team to strategize and execute the goals of BCLF, this organization symbolizes the importance of allyship that Caribbean writers need in order to sustain the multitude of cultures and voices that exists within the Caribbean islands. 

Marsha herself is a magnetic force and she is the perfect representation of what Caribbean literature needs in order for its continued availability and sustainability within the publishing landscape. I welcome Marsha to the series and below is our conversation.

Tricia: Hello Marsha and welcome to In Conversation! Thank you so much for your time, how have you been?

Marsha: Honestly, the word for this season is ‘multi-tasking’. How well is questionable with varying degrees of results! But overall, I am well, I am inspired to create, to serve and I am well-supported and loved. I think this is fair to say about all the members of my team.

Tricia: For those of us who live outside of our Caribbean homelands, sometimes we forget and even abandon our culture. For me personally, I spent many years exploring different types of literature until I eventually came back to Caribbean literature again. So, it’s important to have BCLF to help remind us in the diaspora of the books that made us and that we can always come back to them. What other ways do you feel BCLF serves its diaspora audience?

Marsha: We like to think of this organisation as purveyors of knowledge, storytelling and culture which finds its best expression through Caribbean literary forms, oral and written. Everything that we do wends its way under any of those broad umbrella objectives. So, whether you opt to listen to an author narrate a story (CocoaPod) or a guest interview (Always Lit) via our podcasts, you’re going to undeniably and invariably have an experience with the stories of the Caribbean. Ultimately, we hope that our service to the diaspora audience is helping to foster a curiosity about and a sense of ancestral kinship with Caribbean stories and culture. We assert that culture is umbilical.

Tricia: I admire the way you and your team are using the BCLF platform to highlight and uplift Caribbean storytelling in all its creative formats. Tell me why this goal is important to the BCLF mission?

Marsha: Caribbean culture is rhythm, sound, colour, movement, cadence, pitch. All of these impact the stories we tell to create this artistic legacy that has had this unmistakable impact on the region, the world and one each other. We cannot accurately lift up Caribbean storytelling without incorporating all of these.

Tricia: One of the things that I have come to enjoy and appreciate is the conversations that happen between Caribbean book lovers and the authors themselves. Can you explain how BCLF is trying to foster these conversations?

Marsha: I suppose, at its core, the desire is to foster conversations that are accessible, enjoyable and relatable via modes that consciously and subconsciously dissolve barriers, stereotypes about and preconceived notions about who reads, who should be reading, what one reads and why stories ought to be read, shared and supported. And this is something that is ever-changing. The pandemic pushed us all into the realm of virtual conversations. For one year prior to the pandemic, we enjoyed in person events and now we are driving our Support Caribbean Writers Tour, which is an initiative to decentralize and deinstiutionalise where and how Caribbean stories are told. It also hearkens to the root of our storytelling inheritance, which is the oral tradition. In 2022 and beyond we want to breathe new life into the old practice of having someone narrate their story before a captive audience. For us, that is a love language.

Tricia: Your organizations’s literary festival is really a Caribbean reader’s dream, and the lineup of authors and allies are truly impressive. I noticed that in 2021 you incorporated nationalities from not just the English and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but also from parts of Central America and Africa. Is the festival actively trying to expand its reach? 

Marsha: It’s not so much that we are trying to expand our reach but a fulfillment of purpose. One goal of ours resolves ‘to lessen the divide between the literature of the four language groups in the Caribbean (English, French, Spanish, Dutch) and create a homogeneous appreciation for its works among Caribbean people’. And while it is monumental and ever-expanding, it does call for the intentional act of seeking out writers from each corner of the Caribbean canon when and where possible.

Tricia: You’re now in your fourth year of the literary festival, correct? With pandemic mandates relaxing are there plans to remain virtual or return to an in-person model for 2022? 

Marsha: We are planning for a return to in person and we’re building in a measure of flexibility with streaming options. One thing we benefitted from during the pandemic with the online model was increased reach to audiences we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

Tricia: Talk to me about your team. How was this organization conceived and how important is everyone to the BCLF mission?

Marsha: This organization is actually an amalgam of people who are professionals who I have always known, and with whom I’ve always shared a special productive relationship. There are four of us, myself included, and we all come from different disciplines, and I like to think of the team as self-sufficient and regenerating.

So, there’s Christopher, who is my husband, he’s our communications specialist, he’s pursuing a PhD in Communications. Mellany, also known as ‘the fixer” she’s the director of logistics and operations, she literally fixes everything. She’s a project manager and engineer by trade and she leads tech and is the person that I go to when things are falling apart. Melissa is in project management in construction and she has a very strong administrative streak and talent. I have a very storied career in research and Caribbean history and literature and education and training. I have always been heavily involved in the arts, so I conceptualized and envisioned the direction that I want the festival to go, and I am just very fortunate to be able to dream up and come up with these concepts and present it to a team, who sharpens and helps me shape and most of all execute these ideas. And each person has the opportunity to bring in their own ideas and their own influences to the end product that the readers and our audience experiences.

When I first conceived of the idea, I of course shared it with my husband, who did the requisite Google search, to see if there was anything currently in existence in the iteration that I was envisioning. Then I contacted Mellany, with whom I’ve worked on several other projects before, and we’ve just always had this beautiful, synergistic dynamic. We had another member who was someone who was so instrumental in getting our social media and owning the social media, she’s no longer with us. Melissa came on, and as I just said, a unique bow, around the administrative parts of the project. These are people who I have trusted and known for more than 20 years. Incidentally Melissa and I went to high school together in Trinidad and we have been friends ever since. But this relationship has transformed into a different kind of relationship, and one which I am really fortunate to be the beneficiary of their tremendous years of experience and wisdom.

Tricia: BCLF began a partnership with the Center for Fiction in 2019 to create and curate the Caribbean fiction collection. How did this alliance come about and how do you hope it will continue to promote Caribbean literature?

Marsha: With respect to the alliance with the Center for Fiction, it was always our desire and it’s also our end goal to be able to own a library and a collection. When we thought about it in summation, there’s no flagship for Caribbean scholarship and on a reference point as it were for essential, seminal work for Caribbean literature, and we’ve enjoyed a beautiful relationship with them since 2019. They were one of our first programming partners and that relationship has been evolving and widening. It [also] just made sense because of their own position in the community, as well as a shifting mandate, to address, to look at, to examine the populations and demographics that they serve and how they can improve their own offerings, meant that they were very amendable to the idea [of a collaboration]. Once we pitched our idea, and I want to shout out Melanie Mc Nair and Traci Lester at the Center for Fiction for jumping on it, for accepting it. It took a little while to get it off the ground, then we got partnered with their librarian and we presented a list of works that we said were seminal to the understanding of Caribbean literature. We can’t talk about Caribbean literature without thinking and reading these names. We presented them with a list, they audited it against their existing inventory, and so the library was born. And as we describe it, it’s both a collaboration, it’s collaborative and it’s ever evolving. We hope that it will reflect current happenings and the cultural and social tapestry as well as the names and the emergence of writers in the Caribbean literary canon.

Tricia: One of the things that’s encouraging to witness is the increase of books written by Caribbean authors and those in the diaspora, that are now available for young people in Caribbean schools. Though access is still a challenge, the fact that there’s more representation will always be a plus. What are your thoughts on the diversity of books currently being published?

Marsha: I’m encourage by the books being published right now however, I think what we are experiencing is a reflection of the politics of the publishing industry. If we want that to change, we as Caribbean stakeholders in the writing industry have to be prepared and have to adjudicate and advocate for occupying different seats in the industry so that what is being published is a true reflection of the landscape of our stories.

So, I am encouraged but I am also aware that there are non-Caribbean hands that are still determining who and what gets published and how a story gets told. And while things are not what they used to be 5 to 10 years ago, and there is much to be said and celebrated for that, what we’re seeing right now simply has to be a milestone and then an opportunity for us to revisit these relationships and where we are in relation to the industry. [We] just [have to] continue pressing forward to do the work so that the body of work is a true reflection of our writing experience, our ethos, and our culture.

But we have to keep pushing, this is no time for us to become complacent, because we’re experiencing a surge of stories and this is really the tip of the iceberg. If three are published there are really 30 other stories in the flanks waiting for permission and waiting for opportunity. And the gatekeepers by and large are not of Caribbean descent or of Caribbean heritage and we have to occupy those seats if we really are to experience the true revelations and the full wingspan of Caribbean storytelling in the industry.

Tricia: There’s a quote from Shivanee Ramlochan that goes, ‘Reading the Caribbean means you read the world.’ What does this quote mean to you personally?

Marsha: When Shivanee made that beautiful quote I felt like somebody summed up all of the thoughts and experiences and feelings in my mind and in my heart and especially about being a Caribbean woman in the United States of America. We are a continental cultures and when you read our story, you read the sum of all of our experience that have to deal with who we’re colonized by, and so there are inflections from Africa and the European customs, all entirely creolized. So, if you want a true global review, it’s within the covers of a Caribbean book. It also pays homage to the place that I have often feel has given me the mettle to operate successfully in a place and in a country that’s not my home, in a culture that does not belong to me. And it’s because the Caribbean culture had made me and made all of us into very savvy global citizens. Because of the plurality of our experiences and of our inputs, we are just this very complex, genetic strand with a beautiful, varied DNA. When you read Caribbean you read the world.

Tricia: It’s commendable the way BCLF supports Caribbean authors through its festival, podcast, awards, and book recommendations. What else is on the horizon for BCLF?

Marsha: World domination is on the horizon for the BCLF! We truly really just want to be synonymous for Caribbean literature in all of its many forms: audio products, licensing, mentorship, the creation of a pipeline. We like to think of ourselves as a bridge for moving Caribbean stories between the islands and into the diaspora sphere.

We would eventually love to become an imprint, as mentioned before, gatekeeping, and I think that our stories should be managed and promoted by our own people, and so we are angling to become more influential in the world. Especially as the seismic shift takes place, moving from the UK, we see American book deals, and New York especially, quickly becoming the epicenter of the publishing world, I think that we are optimally placed to make these moves happen. And so we continue to monitor, observe, intuit trends and the direction of the turnings in this literary space and I hope to always be responsive to what’s going on and for the needs of our writers so that we can truly make a difference.

They have a fixed roadmap, I would say it’s not really a roadmap it’s more like a GPS, they have a destination, which is to truly become synonymous with Caribbean writing and Caribbean literature. Here, we want writers, when they’re in North America, they think of the BCLF. Our path towards that is a scenic journey, we keep getting new routes, we keep getting rerouted, there are new stacks being added, but I think we are simply pushing in a very general sense in that direction. We are readily positioned and willing to do whatever it takes to support, engage, and promote our writers. We want to move from the fringes of the industry towards the center where we truly belong.

Tricia: I’ve enjoyed having you here on the blog Marsha, thank you so much. Continued success to you and the BCLF team!

Marsha: Thanks Tricia! My team sends their regards and their adoration for the work that you are doing. It truly takes a village for this work to get done and you are part of the village, and the blogsphere and bookstagram is a huge part of that. I admire your own work, your own sensibilities, and your own insightfulness. Your platform is one that we admire and it’s a gem. So, you keep it up as well.

Tricia: Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement! I do appreciate you and your team.

Be sure to support the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival to stay up-to-date on this year’s festival and follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

Photo courtesy Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.

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