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Catnip for the reader’s soul

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Like almost any reader or writer in T&T at the moment, I’m excited at the prospect of the upcoming NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which opens on April 25 in Port-of-Spain. The Bocas 2013 launch, which is scheduled to take place tomorrow, will herald the official start of the lead-up to the festival. 


My jitters, however, extend further, as I’ve been shortlisted for the inaugural Hollick Arvon Prize. The prize was launched at last year’s festival and will be given to an emerging writer living in the Caribbean. (“Emerging” means the writer hasn’t yet published a full-length work in the genre under consideration.) The winner will be announced at Bocas. 


Frankly speaking, I don’t expect to win. The shortlist includes Barbara Jenkins and Sharon Millar, either of whom I expect may take the prize. They are brilliant writers and, although I haven’t seen their submissions, I’m familiar enough with their bodies of work to say with confidence that they are extremely strong contenders with their lyrical, poignant writing. 


Barbara, who just earned an MFA in fiction from UWI, has already won a number of prizes for her writing, and is in fact being published by Peepal Tree as we speak: her first collection of life writing, Sic Transit Wagon, is to be launched at Bocas this year. Sharon recently completed her MFA in creative writing at Lesley University, a gruelling programme that no doubt left her amply prepared for the boons of the Hollick Arvon Prize. The prize includes the opportunity to learn at the Arvon Foundation, to meet agents and publishers in the UK, and to work with a mentor to develop the fiction manuscript for which the prize was given.


That’s not even to mention Ira Mathur, Vashti Bowlah, Lelawatee Manoo-Rahming and the other eight finalists. I don’t envy the judges at all. I am also excited to see that Monique Roffey has won the fiction prize in the OCM Bocas for Caribbean Literature and is therefore shortlisted for the overall prize. Monique’s book Archipelago, for which she has won the fiction prize, beat out such contenders as Junot Diaz’s much celebrated second collection of short fiction, This is How You Lose Her, so it’s no small honour. Monique has been my own mentor for a couple of years and I’m thrilled that her book is being so favoured. I wish her the very best in the competition, especially since she’s going up against two very strong books in the poetry and non-fiction categories: St Lucian poet Kendel Hippolyte’s collection Fault Lines, and Guyanese writer Rupert Roopnaraine’s collection of essays The Sky’s Wild Noise.


Though it has its detractors—and what large undertaking doesn’t?—Bocas is one of the most exciting developments in Caribbean literature in my lifetime. Literary festivals and book fairs are like my catnip, and leave me drunk on words and ideas. The concept that so many writers and books are gathered together in one spot, just a car-trip away from my own home, is mind-boggling; prior to the advent of Bocas I’d have had to travel to another country to get the same experience. It is a real gift to the people of T&T and I hope that all schools and youth groups will take the opportunity to participate. 


Books and writers tend to take on mythic proportions in the imaginations of readers. For a young person to meet the writer whose work she is studying for CSEC or Cape would be a huge deal. Even I, after years of being a journalist and interviewing many writers, am left tongue-tied in the presence of my heroes. Just ask Olive Senior, whom I interviewed years ago and who still leaves me fumbling and fawning in her presence; or Earl Lovelace, whose startling intellect and insight into the Trinidadian condition never fails to give me pause. 
Speaking of the chance to meet heroes up close, fans of T&T/Canadian writer Rabindranath Maharaj will be treated to his reading from The Amazing Absorbing Boy, his latest novel, on


Friday at 7 pm at UWI. The reading is the gala closing of UWI St Augustine’s Campus Literature Week, which began yesterday with the first of the lunchtime readings taking place daily until Thursday at the Alma Jordan Library. (I’m scheduled to read myself, today.) Maharaj is one of the finest T&T fiction writers of our generation, and his novels have been highly praised in critical circles. Book lovers should not miss the opportunity to hear him read.



For more information on Campus Literature Week, e-mail [email protected].


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