Tuesday, 15 March 2016

THE TALLAWAH INTERVIEW: Kellie Magnus on Jamaica’s lit culture – and growing Kingston Book Fest

STORY TIME: "We need to invest more in local textbooks and not foreign textbooks," says Magnus, enjoying the vibes at Saturday's book fair at Devon House.

One of the hardest working women in the local book industry, Kellie Magnus has a front-row seat in a dynamic literary culture that’s evolving rapidly. She’s an author, too, (Little Lion series, Go De R**s to Sleep), a publisher (Jack Mandora) and the 45-year-old chair of the Kingston Book Festival Committee. So she knows what she’s talking about when she emphasizes that partnership between Parliament and publishers will reap rich dividends for the industry in the long run. At Saturday’s easy-breezy book fair at Devon House, which brought the curtains down on KBF 2016, Magnus spoke to TALLAWAH about where things currently stand.

TALLAWAH: This year’s staging of the Kingston Book Festival’s book fair is on a much smaller scale than last year. How come?
Kellie Magnus: In years past we opened the festival to persons outside of our industry but this year we really wanted to put the focus mainly on books and literature and put some more attention on creating an environment where adults and children can come together and learn about new books. 

TALLAWAH: What are some of the concerns you’ve been hearing from persons in the industry during you time with the festival?
Magnus: People want to see more diversity of Jamaican books, not just books that are traditionally about folklore but books that tell all kinds of Jamaican stories. We know that we have some challenges in terms of the number of publishing houses in Jamaica. But we see more diversity on terms of what’s being self-published; more authors are taking the time to put their own books out. And on the industry side, the publishers and booksellers know that they have a lot more work to do in terms of making readers and potential readers aware of new books. That’s why an event like this is so important to let people find out about the new titles.

TALLAWAH: What’s the rest of the calendar year gonna be like for the book industry?
Magnus: We have had a lot of interest in doing something outside of Kingston. Our rural booksellers keep reminding us that there are readers there too. So we have to think about what kind of format that’s going to take. And then we have our book awards coming up. We want to start the whole programme from scratch and try to make it a more engaging event for a wider cross-section of the Jamaican population.

TALLAWAH: Last year playwright Basil Dawkins expressed his hope that the book festival will become a national event, with stagings in other major towns like Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. Is that possible?
Magnus: Once the sponsors are on board, we’d love to do that. We are grateful to CHASE and Jamcopy for the continued support of this festival. It takes a lot of money, but looking around today and seeing the kids enjoying themselves, having fun and learning about new books, I love that. And I would love to make it happen outside of Kingston in whatever way we can.

TALLAWAH: With a new administration now running things in Gordon House, what pressing industry issues are you hoping will be addressed?
Magnus: We are hoping that this new administration will look at some of the programmes we have been proposing. There was a great programme called Book START that was piloted when the JLP was in power, where new mothers were given a book and encouraged to read at birth. That was seen as one of the main ways to improve literacy. That programme was piloted in 2011 and did not get implemented. So we would like to encourage this administration to maybe consider bringing that back. Secondly, we would like to advocate for stronger partnership between the publishing community and the government. We need to invest more in local textbooks and not foreign textbooks. They are spending a lot of money on textbooks and most of that money leaves the country. And I think if publishers and the government work together to have local companies publish the material and spend that money locally, we would have more of a foundation to address the diversity issue we were talking about. Once you have a base you can take a risk with more titles. So it has multiple benefits for the local economy and the local publishing community.

TALLAWAH: Indeed. When people heard that you were a coauthor of Jonathan Temple’s Go De R**s to Sleep, the news did raise a few eyebrows. What was the response like based on the feedback you got?
Magnus: When I worked on that title, I thought people were not gonna get it; they were gonna kill me. (Laughs). But I loved the original. And people get it. There have been the obvious expected criticisms. A lot of people who don’t read, don’t realize that it’s not a children’s book. It’s not meant for children; it’s meant for frustrated parents. But most people get it and they have a sense of humour about it.

TALLAWAH: What about your super popular Little Lion children’s series? Any new additions in the works?
Magnus: I’m definitely putting out another Little Lion this year. I’m just finishing up the manuscript for Little Lion on the Ball; he’s playing football in this one. And that would be the fourth [in the series]. And the fifth one will be Little Lion Rocks the PTA, which should come out at the end of the year. So I’m hoping for two this year.

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