23rd Annual Conference on West Indian Literature

Grenadian poet and novelist Dr. Merle Collins, called the foremost writer of her country, read to a packed audience last week in the University’s Caribbean House, opening the 23rd Annual Conference in West Indian Literature with selections from her most recent collection of poetry, Lady in a Boat, including “Se Mwé Nutmeg.”

Each spring university and college professors and writers from the region join together to celebrate the literature of the West Indies. “We talk about who we are, what our literature is about, and why it is important,” said Antonia MacDonald-Smythe, Associate Dean for the School of Arts and Sciences at St. George’s and an attendee of the conference since 1992. “It’s a time to discuss what is important to us, to read literature to others, and to present papers we have worked on.”

The West Indian Literature Conference started 23 years ago at the University of the West Indies and grew over the next few years to include the University of Guyana, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Miami, and other Caribbean universities and colleges. Every fourth year the conference is held in an international location.

At last year’s conference Dr. MacDonald-Smythe accepted the proposal to hold the 1994 forum at St. George’s University – for the first time. “I thought it would be a great idea to have it at St. George’s,” Dr. MacDonald-Smythe said. “It’s never been here and it is good for us to be a part of this experience. A lot of people don’t know too much about St. George’s and what we have to offer and this provided a great arena to help them understand what we’re all about.”

“The students also need to be aware of the importance of literature,” she said. “And holding a conference of this nature at St. George’s was very significant.”

This year’s conference was a huge success. More than 40 papers were presented from participants representing universities as far away as Italy and as close as Trinidad and featured Grenadian and regional writers. The evening of readings also included Grenadian poets and short story writers Judy Benoit, Shirley Brathwaite, Shakeera James, Esther O’Neale, Sheldon Scott, Patrica Walcott, Joan Anim-Addo, along with Caribbean poets Jennifer Rahim, Christian Campbell, Mark McWatt, and Eddie Baugh. Oonya Kempadoo, the Guyanese novelist, who resides in Grenada, read from the novel that she is currently working on.

The master of ceremony for the program was Grenadian sociologist and painter Oliver Benoit. Currently on exhibition at Marryshow House, Mr. Benoit’s works were on display in Caribbean House during the conference, and his art was featured during the evening of reading. Providing a showcase for Grenadian visual arts, his presence at the Conference provided an exciting creative engagement between the Caribbean artist and Caribbean writers.

Prolific writer and esteemed scholar Dr. Merle Collins was the featured writer and special guest for the Evening of Reading. Dr. Collins is the daughter of Grenadian parents who returned to their homeland shortly after her birth. Raised in this beautiful tropical setting, Dr. Collins is excited about the educational opportunities that St. George’s University undergraduate and graduate programs bring to island residents.

Dr. Collins is currently a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland, where she teaches Creative Writing and Caribbean Literature. But it was her position as director of the study abroad programs at UMD that brought her back to St. George’s, seeking information on the programs at the University. When Dr. Collins graduated from her alma mater, the University of the West Indies, back in 1972, St. George’s University was a not yet envisioned dream of University Chancellor Charles Modica. Now Grenadian students have an option of pursuing university education at home.

“I came to St. George’s University for the study abroad program because it had the full English program and it was taught in Grenada,” Dr. Collins said. “It was my interest in literature and my love of Grenada [that brought her to St. George’s University].” Stressing the importance of a university education and all that the presence of St. George’s University means to her native island, she enthusiastically stated, “The School of Arts and Sciences at St. George’s has a good library and great facilities. There is a tremendous potential for the new school.”

“St. George’s University has its place in the Caribbean. The medical school is well established and the School of Arts and Sciences has a good foundation and is sure to develop leaps and bounds in the next few years,” Dr. Collins commented. “As time goes on the Arts and Sciences program will find its niche, just like the medical program did.”

“It was great that the West Indian Literature Conference was held at here,” Dr. Collins said. “The Grenadian community was able to see the opportunities St. George’s has to offer.” She also stressed the importance of the Caribbean universities working together. “It is wonderful that the Conference was a joint effort between the University of the West Indies and St. George’s University,” she said. “There’s room for both in the region and cooperation is very important.”

Published on 03/26/2004