In the ten years of the Bocas Lit Fest the presitigious OCM 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. This first part of this chat with the awardees was carried yesterday.
Jeanelle Frontin, Trinidadian writer
About: CODE Burt Award winner for Caribbean Young Adult Literature 2019 for book The Unmarked Girl (first book in The YaraStar Trilogy)
I will admit that entering the CODE Burt Award under the Bocas Lit Fest was not something I planned—my aunt forwarded a newsletter about it a few weeks before the deadline and my intrigue did the rest. Getting the e-mail regarding my shortlisting the next year is a moment I will not forget. As a publishing entrepreneur, it can be difficult at times to explain why you believe in your story enough to take on the work of publishing it. Creative business, however, is both a passion and skillset I have honed and with my intended trajectory for the books, securing the intellectual property within my company was a top priority.
What winning the 2019 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature gave me was my first external, professional validation, and this was meaningful beyond words. Having The Unmarked Girl go on to be listed in the Kirkus Reviews’ Best 100 Indie Books of 2019 (an internationally-recognised book review magazine) was a testament to the quality of the judges chosen by the Bocas Lit Fest for the CODE Burt Award. While this competition is now over, and Bocas Lit Fest seeks a new sponsor for young adult literature, I continue to have a deep appreciation for the significance it had in my journey.
Kevin Adonis Browne, Trinidadian photographer, poet, archivist and scholar
About: OCM Bocas Prize Winner for Caribbean Literature for non-fiction book High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture
When I won the Bocas Prize, I cried. Sometimes, I feel as if that’s the image that’s most associated with me where the prize is concerned: me, at the award ceremony, crying. I don’t mind, though. I’m my mother’s child, and she’s a cryer. If I’m feeling mischievous, I’d say it was a response to winning a prize for a book in a nation where, in spite of its high literacy rating, I’ve been told the people don’t read. “And who reads non-fiction?” they’ve said, “That’s too academic!” That would be enough to make someone cry, wouldn’t you say? So, my comment is how I draw attention to the implicit prejudices people still harbour about those of us who live on an island—that we’re so “simple” and so “happy.” (Too “happy” to read, I suppose.) It’s more difficult, of course, when the commentary is homegrown, which is why Bocas Lit Fest and events like it are so vitally important as a profoundly potent counteragent—an antidote.
We still wrestle with a great deal of self-contempt, which is part of the legacy we’ve inherited, along with our strange and complicated beauty. So when I liken those tears to an obscure irony, or reference Ecclesiastes for its advice to weep at births and the beginning of things, it makes people a little uncomfortable. But it gets them thinking, which is really the point of High Mas and the work I’ve done before and since then. Progress—of thought, deed, imagination, whatever—is incompatible with comfort. The organisers of the Lit Fest, who run themselves ragged to have things go off without a hitch, will attest to this.
In more serious moments, I tell people that I wrote a book and created images that make it impossible for me to be arrogant. When you do work that forces you to feel; when you take your beauty, your pain, your legitimacy as stark, incontrovertible fact; when you understand yourself and what you’ve endured to arrive at this point in your life; and when you know the price you have paid—and are still paying—arrogance is little more than an absurdity. A mask you now get to take off. (The Mas remains, thankfully.) So the tears are also part of remembering that, of honouring your process and that of others. It lets me know, too, that there’s much more to be done, much more to learn. So, "honouring your process" aside, you either dry your tears and get on with it, or do the work while crying. Either way, you’re going to have to do the work—that is, if you hope, as I do, to be part of the legacy of thinkers, writers and artists who have paved the way for you, who have made it possible for you to do what you do now. (And, by “you,” I mean you and me—I’m always trying to implicate people in my work, always looking for company in the outcome of these pursuits, even though I know most of the work will be done alone and in silence.) The work is an act of love, a practice of citizenship, a challenge to the norm, an idea coalescing through action into meaning that (you hope) will stand the test of time. But you are not your work.
That’s the secret no one tells you when you win something: that you didn’t win anything. The book, High Mas, won. Marina Warner, the head judge in 2019, said that when she announced the prize, “High Mas, by Kevin Adonis Browne, is the winner...” You know the rest. The book won. Kevin Adonis Browne went back to work. I drank some rum, danced, washed my clothes, put gas in the car, ate some oxtail my mother made, and went back to writing, teaching, seeing, learning. The effort won, but that is its own thing. The prize is a recognition of what it took to make that book happen and of what the book became (still becoming, like me). And yes, I’m grateful to have made this beautiful, dangerous thing, and grateful to have collected a prize that recognises it. But, prizewinner that I am, I give thanks and just try to get on with it.
Olive Senior, Toronto-based Jamaican poet, novelist, short story and non-fiction writer
About: Many awards in her long career including the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Summer Lightning (1987) and the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for book of short fiction The Pain Tree
Winning a major literary prize in the Caribbean is tremendously exciting because it offers the best kind of validation, coming as it does from people who share your experiences. I’ll always regard The Pain Tree which won the OCM Bocas Prize in 2016 as special because of this endorsement.
It’s been a pleasure being associated with the Bocas Lit Fest in different capacities – as judge, participant and prize winner. More than any other organisation that I know of, Bocas had managed to create a friendly, nourishing space for Caribbean writers no matter where they happen to be located. More than a festival, it has been a fertile meeting ground for everyone who can lay claim to an interest in the region’s literature. The Bocas initiatives, including the various prizes, have been a major catalyst for promoting Caribbean literature beyond the shores of Trinidad and for generating and sustaining a new awareness of Caribbean writing on all the islands.
I am awed at what Marina and her team with limited resources have been able to accomplish over the decade. They have not just laid a solid base but seem to be constantly creating new opportunities and initiatives. The way Bocas has managed to draw young people in provides a model for the rest of the Caribbean. It has been a pleasure to watch Bocas grow and blossom inside of Trinidad while building networks internationally. I know we can expect more growth and more excitement in the years ahead.