The 2nd floor seminar room of the National Library was filled on the fourth day of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest as everyone anticipated the discussion between Barbara Lalla and Shivanee Ramlochan. It began with a reading from Lalla’s latest book Grounds for Tenure which was short yet captivating. The university setting within the book led to the question of balancing working in academia and to what extent it influenced the characters in the book. Interestingly, Lalla found it amusing that people often mistook fictional characters for her colleagues. However, Lalla did confess that naturally her experience has greatly influenced and enriched her writing. She also stated that the novel was not exclusively for academics but could be enjoyed by anyone.
On the heels of this observation, Shivanee mentioned that indeed it was a reader’s novel and commented, “Reading is not just a hobby but an escape.” It seemed that this was no secret even for a then young Lalla who recalled crying because everyone else in her family borrowed a book from the library but she couldn’t as she was too young and couldn’t read. It is evident that Lalla’s literary environment growing up has helped to shape her into the beloved lecture and successful writer she has become. It’s certainly not an easy feat but one which she appears to bear with joy and great humility. I wondered for a moment what it would have been like to do one of her courses while studying at the UWI, St. Augustine campus.
Speaking of her experience in teaching at the UWI, St Augustine, Lalla mentioned that she was always interested in straddling language and literature and couldn’t see herself choosing just one. She added that coupled with the necessary research, writing is a way to better understand oneself as well as the world. This is especially true for someone who has benefited from a mixed literary landscape having grown up in Jamaica and later settled in Trinidad.
A question and answer segment followed and initially highlighted the thought on everyone’s mind of the need to address evident problems within the university. Lalla responded with the tenderness and truthfulness of one who had been asked many times when she said, “You can love something and out of that love still find flaws.” This was not the answer I expected but being a past student myself, it surely was one that made me rethink my sometimes critical attitude towards the university. Lalla stated two main points, that the university ought to finesse the treatment of the graduate staff and that more help should be given to the powerless group of part time staff.
Mention was also made of Lalla’s wittingly satirical manner of writing which she attributed partly to her interaction with her fellow academics who, “use words wisely to be comforting, humourous and even brutal.” She added that her interactions with students are also useful saying, “There are those who are bright, those who are bright and don’t know it and those who are just crazy bright.” She joked that the latter provided the most stimulating exchanges. Having a few spare minutes, the discussion ended with another excerpt from Grounds for Tenure, much to the delight of the audience.