He dreamt of being a fiction writer from a very young age and last week the first step towards that dream presented itself when Newsday reporter Julien Neaves learned he was shortlisted for the BBC’s 2018 International Radio Playwriting competition. His submission was the Caribbean sci-fi radio play, Tanty Get Ah Android.
This year the competition received nearly 1,500 scripts from 114 countries. On June 12, 16 plays were shortlisted for three main prizes – best radio plays by writers with English as their first language, with English as their second language, and most promising script. The winners of the best radio plays would win £2,200, a trip to London, and have their plays broadcast across the world on BBC World Service.
As a frequent listener to BBC World Service, Neaves had heard about the competition before. He said being a procrastinator, his biggest problem was setting aside the time and settling himself down to write. However, this year he decided to buckle down and enter as he had nothing to lose. And once he started writing the story flowed from him, allowing him to write the play in about three, four-hour sessions.
He recalled his forays into writing and told Sunday Newsday that at age six he made comic books with his own stories and drawings and sold them to a neighbour for 50 cents. He would often walk around the house, silently acting out scenes from his own stories and ones he had read, complete with sound effects. As he got older, he would write short stories and poetry and give them to his parents to read. Later, he minored in Literature at the Mona campus at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, where he wrote plays, directed, and sometimes acted for his own drama club.
He believes if he wins the competition it would be a good way to get his name recognised and enter the world of writing.
“Getting older and still not having published a novel, I thought it was a good way to break into this whole writing thing without going through all the stress of trying to get the money to print and publish it, and trying to get stores to carry it. It seemed a little tiresome and I know it’s especially tough for Caribbean writers.”
Neaves said he had multiple ideas for children, young adult, and adult Caribbean sci-fi stories but never wrote them. “I have always been a huge lover of science fiction and fantasy. I love Trinidad and Tobago, I love the Caribbean aesthetic, so combining the two seemed like a natural fit to me.”
Tanty Get Ah Android tells the story of Jemma George or tanty, who cared for her great-nephew, Benjamin, while his mother, tanty’s niece, lives in the US. The niece sends an android, George George or Double G for tanty to help her do chores around the house but, being a woman who has always done everything for herself, tanty has no use for an android.
“I wanted to do a story where a tanty character – an older woman, a matriarch, strong, who speaks her mind, is a pillar-of-the-home kind of woman that many Caribbean families have – gets turned around with the introduction of an android. A lot of people thought I was talking about a phone, but no. I had to explain that I meant an artificial human being from science fiction... One of the main arches is their evolving relationship where, at first she wants nothing to do with this machine, but eventually she begins to see the humanity in him.”
Although it was his first time doing a radio play, Neaves had help from BBC’s tips, as well as his fellow local movie reviewers. He explained since there were no visuals in a radio play, it was necessary to include sound effects, descriptions to give the audience a sense of smell and texture, and even the dialogue had to be written in a way that would help immerse the listener in the story.
His fellow critics did a reading of the completed play and he was able to point out where improvements could be made. They also gave him some advice, he tweaked the play and submitted it in March.
Neaves said he knew the short-list would be announced in June but BBC never contacted him. Instead, he found out after being tagged in a congratulatory Facebook post by Bocas Lit Fest. “I was shocked. I was at work and I stood up and stopped everybody and told them the ‘breaking news.’ I think for that whole day, it took a while to sink in. Then there were about two days of congratulations... It was a surreal feeling. I mean this was the plan but when the dream actually comes through it’s a lot. But it’s exciting and exhilarating.”
He said being in the top seven in the English as a first language category was a privilege and a validation of the faith he, his family and friends and in his ability. He said whether he won or not he would be “pushing forward” by writing more, and entering more local, regional and international competitions with a focus on novels, short stories, and poetry.
Neaves added that he was glad the BBC and its team liked his script and thanked them for the opportunity. He also wished his fellow finalists all the best in the competition.