By Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper
It is difficult to truly put into words how fulfilling it was to witness Cayman do exactly what prompted me to start writing this column – celebrate local writers and writings – as the entire Island tuned into the Roy Bodden Symposium on June 24 and 25. It has been important to me in the last few years, to promote, both inland and overseas, what is produced right here in our small Cayman Islands. It has not been a lonely road, as there is a dedicated body of individuals and organisations that have committed themselves to doing the same, but to what extent has significant progress been made? My area of focus, since an undergrad at the University of the West Indies, Mona, has been on verbal art – literature. It is what I enjoy, what I work hard to ignite a fire in the youth about, what I speak at academic conferences about, what makes me come alive. It is also, interestingly, what I have had a lot of criticism about – “What? You have three degrees, all in English Literature?”. This I have heard so many times, with much condescension. Then comes the next question almost always – “Why didn’t you study Law?”
There has been an existing stereotype of literary studies and a blatant presumption that this area of study is less favorable for students’ futures. Many high school students are not encouraged nor told the advantages of studying literature, nor is it promoted as a prominent area of study that can result in heightened analytical and critical thinking skills. In a 2017 publication, “Why Studying English Literature?” university professor, Tiffani Baihaqi, seeks “to clarify those misconceptions and elaborate the significance of studying English literature” and to establish that studying English Literature would “broaden students’ insight to understand life and human being through literary works. By studying literature, students are expected to be familiar in seeing things from diverse perspectives.” Sadly, it is society that propagates these misconceptions about English literature as it tells the youth that studying English Literature is tantamount to pleasurable reading and an inadequate means for making a living. English literature students supposedly can only become teachers. Not so, as other career paths include author, translator, lexicographer, journalist, publisher, editor, and public relations. In fact, as the JA Roy Bodden Symposium showed, literature study results in new knowledge about history and culture, and allows students to perceive and remember information well, be open-minded, see ‘hidden’ truths, and solve problems.
Undoubtedly, the “JA Roy Bodden Public Intellectual Interrogating the Caymanian Society” symposium which was hosted at the Harquail Theatre, showed how diverse and multifaceted and stimulating and titillating and controversial and inspiring and motivating and absolutely wonderful the written word can be! When I started to prepare for it, I fully expected papers to be presented on politics, history, literature, sociology, and likely education as, after all, Bodden is a former politician, a social historian, an author, and an educator. What I might not have expected is that Bodden’s works also inspired discussions of economics, religion, human resources, special needs students, feminism, law, farming, and environment. The diversity of thought that stemmed from Bodden’s writings, the true interrogation of the society based on triggers from Bodden’s books, as well as the multiple areas in which profundity of thought emerged, proves clearly that literature – the written word – is far more multifaceted than many think.
Thanks to the Cayman National Cultural Foundation (CNCF) and the Committee for the promotion of Research and Cayman Scholarship (CPRCS), Bodden’s writings, his fiction and non-fiction, invited discussion from varied local and international presenters. Local presenters included several young Caymanians like Catherine Welds on “The Politics of the Cayman Islands: When Might it Evolve?”, Latoya Francis’ “A Fresh Look at Education: The Evolving Views of a Young Caymanian”, and Mikana Scott’s “Revisiting the Cayman Islands in Transition: Caribbean Feminism, Decolonial Praxis and Epistemological Linkages”. Other local presenters included CNCF’s Henry Muttoo on the underappreciation of the artist by society - “Transcending Actuality – Signifying our Mindscape”, Dr Christopher Williams – “An analysis of Some Ideas in Bodden’s Books – Race and Slavery”, Dr Erica Gordon on “The Internationalisation of Education: Implications for Small States”, the Hon. Dr Mary Lawrence – “The Cultural Context of Roy Bodden and His Writings”, Mario Ebanks on the “Reform of the Labour and Human Capital Development Framework and Systems in the Cayman Islands”, Dr Frank McField’s titillating topic, “Madness, Badness, and Fear of God”, as well as my own presentation on “Mirrors and Reflections: Seeing Cayman through Bodden’s Short Stories and Poems”.
The diversity of last week’s intellectual discourse is further seen in some of the overseas presenters, many of whom joined via Zoom. Bilika Simamba spoke of the “Accountability of Judges and Government Lawyers: Falling Short of the Ideal”, Dr Monika Lawrence – “A Quest for Self-Definition: An exploration of Bodden’s Short Stories”, Dr Ian Randle, Bodden’s publisher, explored “Bodden Leads the Way – Writing and Publishing as Critical Activities in Nation Building”, and Dr Tom Phillips spoke on “The Political Economy foundations of Roy Bodden’s Social Analysis”.
Whew! Did literature by Bodden inspire all that? Did a writer use mere words to procreate such a plethora of ideas and diversity of views on our Cayman Islands? Arguably, Bodden not only inspired new thoughts on Cayman culture, beliefs, and history, but simultaneously destroyed stereotypes of English Literature as a field worth studying. I have not listed even half of approximately 40 presenters here, but it is hoped that you, like me, feel a sense of pride in what Cayman accomplished in celebrating this son of the soil. Hopefully, this is the beginning of many such promotions of Cayman scholarship. Well done, Roy Bodden, and well done CNCF and CPRCS!