In the ten years of the Bocas Lit Fest the prestigious NGC Bocas Prize and the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature (which has unfortunately been cancelled following the death of its sponsor Canadian philanthropist Bill Burt) have been presented to a variety of writers both new and established. In this third and final part of a series commemorating a decade of the literary festival, Senior Reporter Julien Neaves chatted with a few of the award winners about their experiences.
Kevin Jared Hosein, Trinidadian writer
About: Overall winner of the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Caribbean winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Novel The Repenters was longlisted for the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize and The Beast of Kukuyo was second-place winner of the 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature
My first experience with the Bocas Literature Festival was standing at the arcade adjacent to the Old Fire Station, reading a short story that I dusted off just for that event. This was seven years ago, when I didn’t have any books or awards to my name. The story drew a few amused looks and cracked smiles. One or two people came up to me afterwards and told me that they enjoyed it. And that was enough for me. What I liked was that the gathering felt like grassroots community, removed from etherised literary flair. It was humble—filled with people just doing the work. Their work.
I’ve been a part of it almost every year since then, whether launching a novel, attending a conversation or reading a commissioned short story about a folkloric figure. Before Bocas, I didn’t know that there were so many writers from Trinidad. The up-and-comers, dreamers, and even people that I did know and didn’t know were writers. Those that had been slowly and quietly working at their craft this whole time.
It was a way to bring people of a common calling together and a way to start new conversations, a way to get to know a side of the Caribbean that unfortunately remains underground. I see Trinidad having a literary festival as a great privilege and a means to persuade latent talents and words and dialogues and voices that we haven’t yet heard.
When I first attended Bocas it was also to participate in writing workshops. The facilitators were always attentive and experienced. Seven years later, I felt privileged to host my own writing workshop on fiction.
Monique Roffey, Trinidad-born British writer
About: Her story The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2010 and the Encore prize 2011. 2013 OCM Bocas Prize winner for fiction novel Archipelago
I was delighted and very surprised to win the NGC Bocas Prize. Delighted because the book was written in the aftermath of a flood which happened in Trinidad in 2008, which badly affected my brother’s home and his neighbourhood. So it’s a very personal novel which draws from family biography. I did lots of hands-on research by way of boat hitching to the Panama Canal via various islands, and I’m no great sailor. It was a big trip and I sustained a serious injury en route and the book came from this trip, and from the idea that “we are in peril”, because the planet is warming. It’s an eco-novel and this kind of book cuts against the tradition in the Caribbean canon, somewhat. It also has two white protagonists, an overweight kind of Trini “everyman” and his six-year-old girl child.
I was surprised to win the prize about a story based in the Caribbean about the pain and loss of two white people. I felt deeply honoured to win, though. Of course, when you win a prize like this, it’s a validation of one’s work from within the region. This makes a huge difference, and meant more than other prize nominations I’ve had from outside the region. It made a big difference to how the book was then sold and read and perceived, and I feel it was given a nod of approval form my peers. The judges that year were formidable, Jamaican writer Olive Senior, poet and academic Michael Bucknor, agent/editor Elise Dillsworth and Caribbean superstar Robert Antoni.
The NGC Bocas Lit Fest has changed the landscape of the literary world in Trinidad and the region. It has been a source of vitality and positive energy and it demonstrated a clear commitment to not just showcasing our talent, but supporting and growing our emerging writers. For these reasons, it has been a critical movement for literature and writers in the region. For me, as a writer and mentor/teacher, I was able to somewhat “surf” this energy too, and enter into its slipstream. From 2013-2017, I taught around 40 private creative writing workshops in Port of Spain and organised and ran three writing retreats out at Grand Riviere with fellow Caribbean writers and the help of Piero Guerrini at Mount Plaisir Estate. I could not have done this without the energy of Bocas. The festival, and its positive atmosphere, gave me the confidence to go it alone and do my own thing too. I think the organisers, Marina Salandy Brown and Nicholas Laughlin, and Funso Ayejina, are national heroes, to be honest. They have given us so much.
The NGC Bocas festival has been critical to the growth of region’s literature. We Caribbean people and writers need the world coming to us, rather than the other way around. It has been an antidote to Trinidad’s brain drain problem in the past (of our writers leaving for the metropole). It has encouraged our writers to stay and has given them contacts and connections and mentoring and support. The festival has built our confidence, for example, being able to sit in an audience here in Trinidad and listen to very famous writers read, here on home ground, and also to be part of things too to read ourselves, contribute, showcase our work, attend events, parties, open mic, and workshops. This festival has brought us self-confidence and community. It’s been a very good thing for us—a healthy, dynamic event which, over a decade has been reliable too. Bocas didn’t fold after three years—it lasted and it will continue. That has also been a vote of confidence, That the festival has staying power. Of course, there have been controversies too. It’s all part of the mix.
Vladimir Lucien, St Lucian writer, critic and actor
About: Won first prize in the poetry category of the Small Axe Prize 2013. OCM Bocas Prize winner for 2015 for poetry collection Sounding Ground (at age 27 was youngest winner ever)
My relationship with the Bocas Prize is interesting. I am not sure how far word had gotten around yet, but even before the prize was being established, I was given the duty at my job (at a television and production company in Port of Spain) to interview a lady I had never heard of, who was about to establish a literary prize that was going to be given to Caribbean writers, judged by Caribbean or Caribbeanist peers and given the award at a festival in the Caribbean. That lady was Marina Salandy-Brown. And who was I? I was an unpublished, burgeoning poet—a new talent so to speak. I was reading during my break at my job, on the maxi to and from there, and up late, “moonlighting” as a poet, as they say. Not letting on that I had any interest in the literary festival beyond my duty as interviewer, but immediately it was the prize of my dreams.
I had been deeply invested in the idea of the Caribbean helping itself, creating its own structures, and its own systems of valuation regarding its literature. I was also at the festival, interviewing writers, two of whom—little did I know then—my own book would be up against, five or so years later. Maybe it was in the second year, I was featured at the annual New Talent Showcase hosted by Bocas at the festival. Three years later, my book was published. And the year after that, my book won the poetry, and the overall prize.
So I am grateful to Bocas, not merely for the prize, but by creating means of encouragement and empowerment that prodded and supported me along the road to becoming a writer. That I later won the prize was for me a sort of graduation, an actualisation within the very frame within which I had also been nurtured. This of course has been, and is being done for many other writers up to today. Winning the prize has helped me tremendously. It has had many more people read my work, and has afforded me opportunities that have resulted in further growth. Another interesting thing about my specific experience of winning the prize, is that it is etched in history—not merely the winning of the first major anglophone Caribbean prize, but also, for now, I am the youngest. In that way, I suppose I remain a child of the prize and of the festival.