"When you look at Caribbean writing, there seems to be a lull since the generation after Lovelace" says Rhoda Bharath, one of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest's Planning Committee members. "Jamaica may be the exception with authors like Tanya Shirley and Kei Miller, but there are not a lot of new writers coming out of the region itself." Bocas completed its second run this April to rave reviews. It is the brainchild of Marina Salandy-Brown who, after working in the media in Britain for many years, was amazed to find upon her return to Trinidad that people in her book-reading group weren't familiar with the writers she was reading. "I realised that the Caribbean Diaspora was so disparate; many of our best writers live outside the region," Salandy-Brown explains. "I wanted to create a forum to bring us all together-and make it fun!" In just two years, it has become a space in which Caribbean Diaspora writers can reconnect with their roots and widen their audience and local writers feel supported and valued. This focus on writers from within the region is an important facet of Bocas. Enter the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize. "I'm delighted that this new prize is associated with the NGC Bocas Lit Fest," says Salandy-Brown. "It's a great chance for a writer."
Worth £10,000 and guaranteed for the next three years (fiction in 2013, non-fiction in 2014, and poetry in 2015), the prize offers an emerging Caribbean writer (writing in English) the opportunity to advance-or even finish-a literary work. Sponsored by the Hollick Family Charitable Trust, working in conjunction with the Arvon Foundation (a charitable organisation which promotes creative writing and, according to Salandy-Brown, is "brilliant at administering training courses"), it offers the winner cash to the tune of £3,000; the chance to be mentored by an established writer over the course of a year; and a week-long creative-writing course at one of Arvon's internationally acclaimed writing houses, all expenses paid. It also offers unknown authors a fighting chance to actually get published-the winner gets three days in London with one goal in mind: to network with editors and publishers who might be interested in his or her work. This critical part of the literary business, which many good writers who don't live in metropolitan areas are not able to access, is also being hosted by Arvon, in conjunction with the Free Word Centre (a London-based literature and ideas organisation) and the literary agency of Rogers, Coleridge & White. Ruth Borthwick, Arvon's chief executive, said she was "thrilled for Arvon to work with Lady Hollick and the NGC Bocas Lit Fest to find and develop the next generation of writers following in the footsteps of Lorna Goodison, Earl Lovelace and Derek Walcott."
This is a huge step forward for budding Caribbean writers, many of whom are longing for the chance to concentrate on their craft, improve their skills and connect with the wider literary world: fellow writers, to be sure, but perhaps even more importantly, the agents, publishers and marketing and distribution houses that can make the stories in their heads and hearts come to life on paper or e-book. This is especially critical against the current backdrop of regional publishing. Other than Star Apple Books in Trinidad, not many regional publishers are handling fiction-not Ian Randle Publishers (based in Jamaica), not the university presses. "I understand it," says Salandy-Brown. "There's no tradition of publishing fiction and we don't have the critical mass, so it's more risky. But it also means there's no development of fiction writing. This prize is intended to find people with talent who will benefit from the opportunity to be crafted." Barbara Jenkins, a writer who has won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (Caribbean Region) on two consecutive occasions, says she has a "vested interest" in the Hollick Arvon prize: "I intend to apply!" She hopes lots of other writers do as well, so that this gaping need in the local literary landscape will be uncovered. "There is so much quality writing that is lying dormant for want of opportunity," Jenkins says. Part of the attraction of the Hollick Arvon prize for her is its focus on development of the craft of writing. "Things like the Commonwealth Prize make you think you're doing something right, because you get the validation," she explains. "But it doesn't really help your writing to grow. This prize can do that and take it to the next level."
While winning would be great, Jenkins-and any other writers who give it a shot-stands to gain anyway, since all submissions are being reviewed by a judging panel that includes representatives from Bocas, Hollick, Arvon and Rogers, Coleridge & White. "It's a showcase for writing," says Marina Salandy-Brown. "You're getting your work seen by the right people." There's really no other prize like it, at least not in the region. The developmental benefits are amazing, but strip away the mentorship, networking and workshopping elements and TT$30,000 doesn't seem like a lot to tide a prospective author over; book writing, often a slow and tedious process, can take years. "The prize is meant for work-in-progress writers," Marina explains. "It's to help those who have already been writing. . .to help progress their work. It's not meant to pay you to finish a book." As a safeguard against applicants who hear about the prize and then scramble to write something by deadline, entry requirements include the submission of previously published work (even if it's a magazine article or self-published book) to prove commitment to the art of writing, the same kind of commitment that the NGC Bocas Lit Fest is making to the consumption of that art. "We're so unused to talking about books," says Salandy-Brown. "We think it's something that 'they'-'they' being someone we're not equal to-do." Yet, the festival grew by 28 per cent from its first year to its second. People came from all over the country-and the region-to be part of it, so the organisers have certainly tapped into something. "Books are about ideas," Marina says. "Emotion, thoughts, insights, experiences-of abuse, migration, sport, fashion, history, genetics, you name it. That's what the festival is about. And it's free and open." If there is a downside to this new prize, suggests Rhoda Bharath, it's that the competition will be stiff. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing," she adds. "All it means is that the calibre of writing coming out of it will be the best in the region." She also makes the point that the Hollick Arvon prize is one of the few resources that writers living and working in the Caribbean can access. "It would be nice if other corporate citizens were to offer incentives like this, because it would mean more quality writing coming out of the region."
Interested writers can log on to www.bocaslitfest.com/hollick-arvon-caribbean-writers-prize.html for more information and to download an entry form. Contact [email protected]vonfoundation.org or telephone 011 44 207 324 2554 for enquiries. Deadline for entries is September 30, 2012.