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Chances are, if you asked the average Bahamian high school student about Bahamian writers, they may be able to count how many they know on one hand. The widespread ignorance about our rich literary heritage is caused by a number of factors - most of all, education - but The College of The Bahamas (COB) is actively working to foster a love of literature once more through their Meet the Writer series.
Held once a semester, the Meet the Writer series brings established and emerging Bahamian writers in a wide range of practices to COB students and the Bahamian public to share their work.
Coordinator of the program and COB Associate Professor in English Literature Shaniqua Higgs says the program allows students to interact with writers they have been learning about in class. For many student writers themselves, the chance to meet those who have inspired them is exciting - and since the event is open to the public, everyone is invited to attend and learn more about our nation's storytellers and understand the importance of literature.
"I think the college should be leading the way in putting on events like this because it has a mandate to educate a nation," says Higgs. "I think that we often look abroad for intellectual stimulation and we ignore talented writers and artists in The Bahamas - we have a lot of them but they are not given recognition. It's a shame because literature in general is an important means to stimulate the mind."
"Humanities are being undervalued and some students tell me they didn't have to take literature in high school," she adds. "But then how do you develop appreciation for the arts? How do you become a critical thinker and a person who knows how to reason, to respect differences, to love reading? Literature is so important for its cultural value and for what it can teach us."
For this semester's Meet the Writer event on February 28, two poets - Obediah Michael Smith and Nicolette Bethel - will launch their most recent books by sharing selected pieces with the audience.
In "Discovery Daze", Obediah Michael Smith's 15th book of poetry, the prolific poet meditates on Bahamian life, making everyday objects and routines magical again as he finds art everywhere he looks in his Kemp Road neighborhood.
Readers may notice, however, the absence of his signature tongue-in-cheek poems - for Smith, the book is a response to the complaint that his poems often use inappropriate language and deal with adult subject matter. In his experience, it's the reason behind the exclusion of his work from school studies at home - despite the fact that he reads these same poems to high school students in other countries with no resistance.
"I've never been included in the local school literary canon and I don't know if it is my fault or their fault, but I want to rectify the situation," says Smith. "I've been included and celebrated internationally - in Peru, Venezuela, Cuba, in various regional anthologies - so why not at home?"
"I read to schoolchildren in these other countries I visit and they tell me adult subject matter does not matter - what mattered is that the work was good," he says. "So what is it about those places and this place? Why have they made me so self-conscious about what a work can contain and what you can put before students?"
"Discovery Daze" may be a book about which there can be no complaint when it comes to schoolchildren, but at what cost? For Smith, the whole exercise is counterintuitive - not only to his own creative practice which draws inspiration from all life, but to the very notion itself of preserving innocence in readers who live in the information age where everything is exposed and exploited.
"What is so shocking about that is when three o'clock rolls around and children are coming from this primary school up the road from me, they are using every manner of language," he says. "So is it that group of students we are trying to protect?"
"How well does this attitude we have protect them from what we think they are supposed to be innocent of?" he continues. "It has not worked, it does not work, and it is not working. It's a lie as well, because we are trying to suggest that they are not exposed to what they are definitely exposed to and I think that it's a question of including for them all that is life and showing them how it's beautiful and what it means."
Reading alongside Smith is COB lecturer Nicolette Bethel. Though known for her essays and plays expounding on Bahamian cultural life, Bethel writes poetry about the more personal aspects of her life and family history that many Bahamians can relate to.
Her first book of poetry, "Mama Lily and the Dead", published in 2010 by Poinciana Paper Press, recounts the tragedies faced by her resilient grandmother and extended family. In her new collection that she will launch at Meet the Writer, "Lent/Elegies", Bethel explores grief and meditates on the passing of time to come to terms with the death of her mother, Dr. Keva Bethel, through the "sevenling" poetic form.
"My approach to poetry is that it is a craft. I came to poetry really in the beginning to master all the nuances of English for the purposes of writing prose, and then I stuck with it," explains Bethel. "But it's always been about craft and it's been really challenging and exciting craft because you're using these constraints to express what it is you're trying to say."
"As a writer, my poems are about death. They all deal with that theme," she adds. "In these poems, I had no thought about the audience - the audience is myself. If I got them to where I was while I was writing them, that's all they can be."
Bethel published "Lent/Elegies" in a somewhat revolutionary way. In the Internet age, our understanding of books has changed as we explore digital platforms for storytelling. Whereas many writers and publishers scoff at the idea, Bethel embraces it. In 2007, she launched an online-only literary magazine "tongues of the ocean" and maintains several blogs. "Lent/Elegies" has been published through a "nanopress" online, free for anyone with Internet access to enjoy, so that the website is the book itself - though it is still available as a hard copy through Lulu.com and as an e-book.
"Internet has changed us. It changes the way we think, the way we look at and live in the world," says Bethel. "Publishing is resisting because publishing is firmly anchored in the print world and the print world is passing away."
"It's hard to challenge the idea that print changed the world - the ability to free thought, to multiply it, to master it. It created revolutions," she continues. "But that's the age we're living in now because of the Internet - revolutions and shifts are happening. People who have the same thoughts and the same experiences can communicate with each other not matter where they are on the planet, at no cost, they don't have to know each other, and that's never been able to happen before."
Indeed Bahamian writers are launching extraordinary projects, their work reaching and being celebrated by global viewers - it is high time the public took notice.
o These two literary giants will launch their respective new books through "Meet the Writer" at 6 p.m. on February 28 on the second floor of Chapter One. It is free and open to the public.
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