The four-day NGC Bocas Lit Fest ended with a bang for me, as my NGO, the Allen Prize for Young Writers, held its annual prizegiving ceremony as part of the wider festival on Sunday afternoon at the National Library. It was elating to see four of our alumni, young people who entered the competition last year, standing confidently in front of a good-sized international audience to read their work in poetry and fiction. There was at least one publisher in the audience, and certainly plenty of writers and readers, enough to hold me to my promise to seriously attempt publication of the winning works of the past two years of the Allen Prize competition.While there are bound to be exceptional pieces in the book, my interest in the publication is three-fold and none of those reasons is strictly about literary merit. The Allen Prize is a developmental organisation, devoted to training, rewarding and publishing writers aged 12-19. Firstly, the book would be a carrot to encourage the young writers. Secondly, producing a book will serve as part of the training programme—young people will be introduced to some of the key processes of publishing, including rigorous editing. Finally, the book will also be a fund-raiser for us, and it is therefore imperative that we produce it at low cost and succeed in selling it far and wide.
This last point is significant. When the organisation was envisaged in a strategic plan three years ago, the document heavily emphasised corporate donors as the main source of funding, followed by government and private philanthropy. Our own fund-raising events were in the plan but not emphasised. Surely, in a country as rich as ours, it would be easy to get funding for a clearly meritorious plan. How wrong we were! Without trying to oversimplify the issue, I often make the observation that there are not enough philanthropists and philanthropic institutions in T&T. The burden of supporting charities and civil society organisations therefore falls squarely on government and corporate citizens. They are oversubscribed and overtaxed to the point of frustration at the ever-present flood of applications for funding everything from a book bag to a bus. There is no Trinidad and Tobago arts council for me to approach for funding the Allen Prize; no Caribbean fund for the arts to support this work that most would agree is an important intervention for young people as well as for literature. When Pat Bishop died last year the Lydians’ Barbara Jenkins eulogised her in a piece called The Winter Journey of the Soul, which I reproduced with her permission on my blog lisaallen-agostini.-com. Barbara writes: “How many times must you say to a national community; how many times must you say to the corporate world; how many times must you say to ministers and governments of how many regimes, that the wealth of a nation is the people, their creativity, their natural born gifts, their talents? Not just say, not just talk, speechify, posture, but show by example, demonstrate by unceasing labour, by walking the walk, barefoot over beds of nails, through coals of fire, decade after decade after decade?
“Say over and over and over, that our wealth, the treasure of our human capital, is inexhaustible, renewable, sustainable —the only long-term capital that this country possesses, the only investment worthwhile, the only thing that could, would, last beyond all other wealth. That this wealth must be recognised, nurtured, developed, cherished, rewarded?” I recognise that government and corporate donors represent the largest finance base for the non-profit sector in this country, but I am equally clear in my mind that the current system does not work well and needs to be changed. Our government needs to create—and initially fund—independent, autonomous and unbiased councils for the arts and culture, separating funding from political patronage and giving small-scale work of artistic or cultural merit the chance to have the same access to funding as work with greater popular appeal.
Those funds will then be championed and fed by private philanthropy, from donations of $25 each by a million people, and from million-dollar donations by corporations and wealthy individuals. The investment of the capital of this fund would generate enough income to run it with no further government intervention, and so there would be no more race or agenda-pandering with changes in government: a project would either meet the requirements of a successful application or it would not. Give transparency and accountability a chance to replace pappyshow and nepotism and I guarantee we will all be the richer for it.