Features — 10 May 2017 — by Rowland A. Parks
International Regional Writers Conference held in Benque Viejo Del Carmen

BENQUE VIEJO, Cayo District, Sat. May 6, 2017–As a part of the 7th International Festival of Culture, a writers conference was held today on the campus of Mount Carmel High School, in Benque Viejo del Carmen. The theme of the conference was: “The Writer as Inspiration for National Unity, Self-Confidence, and Pride.”

Several Belizean writers were present and participated in the morning and afternoon workshops which also featured writers from Honduras and Guatemala. The aim of the workshop was to amplify on the selected theme.

The workshop got underway shortly after 9:00 a.m., after the singing of the Belizean national anthem and an opening prayer.

Belizean poet David N. Ruiz, who is one of the organizers of the event, gave the welcoming address and introduced the foreign guests.

Entertainment for the occasion came in the form of a folkloric presentation by Orquidea Negra Dance Company from Belize and Ballet Folelorico de Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Following the presentation of the two dance companies, Daniel Rivera introduced the keynote speaker for the conference, Dr. Herman Byrd, who heads the Belize Department of Archaeology. Dr. Byrd’s address was focused on the theme of the conference, “The Writer as Inspiration for National Unity, Self-Confidence, and Pride.”

Before delivering his keynote address, Dr. Byrd thanked David Ruiz on behalf of the Community of Artists for Cultural and Historical Endeavors (CACHE) for the opportunity to participate in the International Festival of Culture and in particular this writers conference.

Dr. Byrd told the conference, “I am confident that it will be a time of creative reflection, mutual encouragement and rekindling of your vocation. I speak to you this morning with profound admiration for your craft, dedication, and passion and, above all, with great appreciation for the critical role you play in your countries.”

“In 1959 a psychiatrist from Martinique was asked to speak to a group of African writers meeting in Rome. In the early 1980s a Belizean archaeologist presented a paper at the American Association of Anthropologists meeting in Mexico City. What in the world, you may ask, do they have in common and what if anything do they have to do with our topic for this morning’s reflection—the writer as inspiration for national unity, self-confidence and pride?” Byrd remarked.

He went on to state, “In 1959 Frantz Fanon addressed the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers meeting in Rome. As you may know, Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique. He graduated from medical school in France and practiced as a psychiatrist in Algeria during the Algerian revolution. However, he left the world of medicine and dedicated his life to writing about the psychoanalysis of reconstituting national identity and culture after centuries of colonial domination. In his address, Fanon reflected on the writers’ role in the struggle for freedom and independence in Africa. Fanon held that the colonial experience had left an indelible psychological trauma on the colonized that consigned the latter to a protracted struggle to determine their true self (a theme he first explored in Black Skin, White Mask and then later in his major work, The Wretched of the Earth). He would devote the remainder of his short life to writing about this immeasurably important process of cultural re-constitution.”

“Noting Africa’s status as the birthplace of human civilization and its rich ancient and pre-colonial histories, he urged the participants to reclaim what he termed the ‘mineral strata’ that was left after centuries of colonial erosion and to do this by developing a national literature. For this to happen the writer, whether through novels, essays, poems, or short stories—must seek to address the people’s greatest needs and aspirations to become whole again. Given the context and times in which he was writing—the Algerian War for independence, Fanon spoke of a national literature as a literature of combat. He wrote, ‘It is a literature of combat because it molds national consciousness, giving it forms and contours and flinging open before it new horizons; it is a literature of combat because it assumes responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in time and space,” noted Byrd.

Byrd further noted, “I humbly suggest that over a half a century later his ideas are still relevant to us in a post-colonial and post-independent world. For Fanon, the development of a national literature with its power to mold the national consciousness was perhaps the single most important task a writer could and should undertake—the mode is virtually limitless and constrained only by the creativity and talent of the individual (and increasingly today by the economics of publishing). Your efforts have the potential to yield a rich harvest: the deepening of one’s appreciation for the country’s national values.”

From discussing the revolutionary contributions of Fanon, Dr. Byrd then zeroed in on the contributions of one of Belize’s own sons, Dr. Joseph Palacio.

Referring to David Ruiz’s invitation, Dr. Byrd said that, “[it] came after I had finished reading drafts of an upcoming trilogy of books by Dr. Palacio. The forthcoming work is entitled, The Practicing Anthropologist: The Collected Works of Joseph Orlando Palacio. Volume I (Building a Nation) consists of early essays in archaeology and social anthropology and provides a window into the country’s first archaeologist exploring how best to apply his expertise to the dynamics of decolonization. Volume II (Cultural Diversity and Indigenous Peoples) explores Belize’s cultural diversity and indigenous peoples. Volume III (Garifuna Peoplehood and Barranco) examines the process of social and cultural challenges confronting peoples in their quest for social development and recounts some two centuries of change in Barranco.”

“Like Frantz Fanon, Dr. Palacio left his original training (archaeology) to take on a second passion (social anthropology) that would see him being consumed in life-long research and writing. In Mexico City, he appealed to his fellow anthropologists to focus their efforts on promoting national identity. In time, his forte became ethnographic research aimed at exploring the sinews of Belize’s multi-cultural society. He, more than anyone I know, has produced the most perceptive studies aimed at grasping the complex layers of the multiculturalism that is hailed as one of our country’s most unique features,” said Byrd.

Byrd went on to state, “It is often said that among Belize’s ethnic groups, the Garifuna has led the way in cultural retrieval, preservation and advocacy. The pride of place given to Garifuna Settlement Day, the resurgence of Garifuna music as exemplified in the late Andy Palacio and parandero Paul Nabor, the Gulisi Museum, the Garifuna Collective, the tireless efforts of Sebastian and Fabian Cayetano, and Roy Cayetano to promote their culture, are all beloved manifestations of the successful resurgence of Garifuna culture in modern Belize. In my view, Dr. Palacio’s ethno-historical reconstruction of Garifuna culture was and continues to be a driving force behind this highly-acclaimed revival of Garifuna culture.”

“The Belizean Garifuna renaissance has had a ripple effect not only among other cultural groups in Belize but also along the Caribbean coast of Guatemala and Honduras and across the Caribbean Sea, retracing the steps of those early ancestral migrations and imbuing fragmented Garifuna coastal communities with new life. I contend that the Garifuna renaissance is a great testament of the powers of research and writing, this time from the world of non-fiction to renew the peoples’ spiritual and cultural moorings and provide a foundation for profound cultural change built on a newfound sense of individual and collective self-esteem, pride in one’s cultural heritage and a love of the land within which it flourishes,” he added.

Byrd then remarked, “Although his works are the fruits of a life-time of labor (the collection consists of some seventy essays), the good news is that you have the creativity and the talent to achieve similar results in just one novel, one play, one poem, or one song. Think for a moment of the impact of Zee Edgell’s Beka Lamb, H. E. Sir Colville Young’s Riding Haas, Evan X Hyde’s About Poems, Roy Cayetano’s Drums of My Father, David Ruiz’s Old Benque and A Walk Through Benque Viejo—the list could go on for a very long time (seeing that we are meeting in the home of BRC Printing and Cubola, I would like to congratulate both of them for publishing works of Belizean literature and Cubola in particular for its publication of anthologies of Belizean poetry, short stories such as If Di Pin Neva Ben and the two volumes of Belizean women writers, Memories, Dreams and Nightmares—all of which are important building blocks of Belize’s literary canon).”

He then noted, “In the early days of our independence, Philip Lewis’ poem ‘A Si Wha New Belize’ appeared to capture the nascent dreams of the young nation striking out on a new future, radically different from the past:

A Si Wha New Belize

A tink a si wha new Belize weh
di Creole man
di Mestizo
di Garifuna
an di Mayan
no separate as a lis dem
but instead all da Belizeans.
‘All a wi da wan’

di Creole man sey.
‘Todos son hermanos’
‘Asi dice el Mestizo’
‘Ubafu lun Garifuna’
A wanda weh dende mean?
When Maya man sey, ‘Koten waye’
Da ie temple ie wha sho yu.

Who sey me sey Coolie Indian no de?
Go da Punta Gorda,
Check out Yahbra,
Di smell da no sere
Da tacari an wite rice wid
Meat an some good bush.
Climb pan di mule-an-kyart
If ie no wha go, weh di hell
We gwine push it.
Dis ya time da no lakka beffo time,
Memba wen wi cudn’t si?
Now wi move di ting fra ova wi eye
An wi get up affa wi knee
All a wi da one a sey
‘Quepasa’ – yu nho yer mi big
Black mouth an mi lata brains
Man luk ya Bra – da time fi si di
New Belize.”

“Who can hear this read with passion and not be moved with this new vision of who we aspire to be as a people and not be filled with a deep sense of excitement for what we can accomplish?” asked Byrd.

He stated, “A new writer has just burst on the scene in China; she is a young woman who wrote an autobiographical novel entitled I am Fan Sousi, depicting the harsh realities of millions of immigrants like her. When interviewed by a throng of journalists, she said, ‘I never dreamed that the power of the pen would transform my life.’ Well, it has and may also change the life of thousands of others.”

“I want to encourage each of you to never and I mean never—not even in the darkest moments of writers’ block nor after your tenth rejection from a publisher—underestimate the power of your pen to deepen our appreciation of who we are as Belizeans (similarly as Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans). Such individual and collective self-knowledge is the cornerstone upon which a sturdy national edifice can be constructed and enriched united, confident and proud,” observed Dr. Byrd.

The day’s event was divided into two forums, a morning and an afternoon forum. The morning forum was in English, while the afternoon forum was in Spanish.

The English forum was in the format of a round table discussion and was moderated by Myrna Manzanares, the president of the Belize Kriol Council.
Those taking part in the morning forum included Orlando Cocom, who represented the Belize History Association; Felene Swazo, the president of Belize Writers’ Guild; and a representative from Belize Book Industry Association.

In the afternoon session, writer and poet Julio Cesar Pineda, a Honduran, did a reading, as well as David Ruiz, and Carmen Carillo Amando Chan. The poets who read their works in Spanish were presented by Shamika Conorquie.

Mariianni Penados presented the prose readers, which included University of Belize English lecturer and short story writer Ivory Kelly, Felene Cayetano Swazo, Rudy Romero and David Ruiz.

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