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Book festival chief judge relishes tough task
The Bocas Prize - one of the highlights of the Caribbean literature festival now on at the National Library in Port of Spain – will be handed out tonight to an author who beat some of the region’s best writers.
Over five months, nine experts were tasked with whittling down 40 entries to a long list of 30, then a shortlist of three. Up to this point, the books had been assessed by three judges in each of three categories: poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction.
The final stage is possibly the most challenging one, and it’s where the chief judge, Jamaican Olive Senior - an acclaimed writer herself - comes in.
She sits on a panel with vice-chair Marjorie Thorpe and the nine other judges to pick the final winner. Up to Thursday – the first time they all came together face to face – they had not yet made a firm decision.
“The challenge is because we’re judging three books that are so different,” said Senior. “It’s much easier if you’re reading ten novels or ten books of poetry, because you’re comparing like with like.”
The three finalists for the Bocas Prize are St Lucian Kendel Hippolyte, who topped the poetry category with his book Fault Lines; Guyanese Rupert Roopnaraine, who won the non-fiction category with The Sky’s Wild Noise: Selected Essays; and T&T’s Monique Roffey, adjudged the best in the fiction category with Archipelago.
In addition to having your work deemed the best Caribbean book published in 2012, the winner gets a cash prize of US$10,000 courtesy One Caribbean Media.
Writing heavyweights Earl Lovelace and Derek Walcott won the two previous Bocas Prizes. Lovelace won last year for his novel Is Just a Movie and Walcott won the first Bocas Prize in 2011 for his poetry collection White Egrets.
Senior herself was up for the prize in 2012. Her novel, Dancing Lessons, although not a winner, was singled out for special mention by the judges.
Senior said “the quality of the writing” is the main criterion she’s going to use in making her choice.
“The genre doesn’t matter in a way. It’s how well the writer is connecting with the reader,” she said. “Does it work holistically? Is it good from beginning to end?”
Festival director Nicholas Laughlin said winning the Bocas Prize “helps drive interest in the writers”.
Lovelace received invitations to appear at book festivals around the world following his win.
“Earl is a very respected writer, but we’ve observed that there’s a bigger international interest in him since he won the award,” said Laughlin.
Bocas organisers approached Senior and previous chief judges, he said, because “they’re fairly eminent and they all have a broad range of knowledge.
“Olive is a writer of both prose and poetry. She’s worked in publishing. She’s worked as an editor. She’s written non-fiction as well,” said Laughlin. “She’s one of the most popular and respected Caribbean writers of her generation.”
Laughlin said judges are given “a modest honorarium” for serving on the panel, but it’s not nearly enough for what they are asked to do.
For judging literary prizes, the time that you actually put into it and the amount of thought you put into it, we can never adequately really compensate you for that,” he said.
Senior said it’s an honour to follow the footsteps of 2011 chief judge Arnold Rampersad and George Lamming, who chaired the judging panel last year.
“It’s also a way of giving back something to Caribbean writing,” she added.
Events like Bocas and the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica further boost what she sees as a burgeoning Caribbean writing industry.
“I think there’s a movement towards Caribbean writing. There’s a kind of explosion,” she said. “I’m very excited by all the new stuff that’s out there. It makes me really, really proud.”
The Bocas festival will be conferring two new awards this year, both judged by panels separate from the one for the Bocas Prize.
The Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize will be given to an emerging writer to help them complete a literary work. Guardian journalist Lisa Allen-Agostini and four other writers from T&T, Vashti Bowlah, Barbara Jenkins, Sharon Millar and Lelawatee Manoo-Rahming are on the shortlist.
The Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters will be given to non-writers who have made lifetime contributions to the field. This year’s winners are publishers John La Rose, who died in 2006, and Sarah White.
Today’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest schedule
The Guyana-based Trinidadian author of The Humming-Bird Tree talks to Nicholas Laughlin about his life and work as poet, fiction writer, and editor of the journal Kyk-over-al.
10–11 am • AV Room
EDINBURGH WORLD WRITERS’ CONFERENCE
A National Literature?
Keynote speaker: Marlon James
Writers’ panel: Irvine Welsh, Vahni Capildeo, Hannah Lowe.
Chair: Marina Warner
The first of our two writers’ debates, part of a worldwide series of discussions on literature’s big questions.
11 am–12.30 pm • Old Fire Station
Roslyn Carrington and Heather Rodney-Diaz, chaired by Jessie-May Ventour.
Two Trinidadian writers of romance novels read from their work and discuss how to make affairs of the heart come to life on the page.
11 am–12 pm • AV Room
Film adaptations of St Lucian poems and short stories by Davina Lee, and short profiles of poet Vahni Capildeo and novelist Lawrence Scott by Karen Martinez.
12–1 pm • AV Room
PERFORMANCE POETRY AND OPEN MIC
A selection of performance poets take their vibe to the streets of the city. Plus a chance for budding writers to share their work.
12–1 pm • Abercromby Street Arcade
NEW TALENT SHOWCASE
The third of our New Talent Showcase writers reads from her poems and fiction and discusses her work.
1–2 pm • Old Fire Station
How to pitch your story with Elise Dillsworth and Ibrahim Ahmad.
A literary agent and a senior fiction editor at Akashic Books share tips on how to talk to publishers.
1–3 pm • 1st Floor Seminar Room
NGC BOCAS LECTURE:
THE BIG IDEA
The winner effect: how power affects the body and mind with Ian Robertson.
In the second annual NGC Bocas Lecture a distinguished neuroscientist explains what makes “winners” and “losers”, and discusses how success changes the structure of the human brain with Mark Lyndersay
1.30–3 pm • AV Room
DIY Fiction with Helen Drayton, Beverley-Ann Scott, and Hugh Blanc, chaired by Geraldine Skeete.
In this showcase of the best self-published Trinidadian fiction of the past year, three authors read from their work and discuss their publishing experiences.
1.30–2.30 pm • 2nd Floor Seminar Room
WRITERS’ UNION PRESENTS
Members of the Writers’ Union of Trinidad and Tobago read from their work, and host a talk by Carol Redhead on Writers as visionaries.
2.30–5 pm • 2nd Floor Seminar Room
The unity is submarine
A year after the inaugural Caribbean Literature Action Group meeting, the CaribLit initiative is launched to the public with a conversation on the challenges and opportunities facing contemporary Caribbean writers. With Kellie Magnus, Kendel Hippolyte, Diana McCaulay, and Nicholas Laughlin.
3–4 pm • Old Fire Station
The Mystic Masseur, dir. Ismail Merchant
Set midway through the 20th century among Trinidad’s Indian population, this is the first film adapted from the work of Nobel-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Following the death of his father, idealistic teacher Ganesh strives to become a writer, but instead is propelled into national politics.
3–6 pm • AV Room
Oonya Kempadoo and Lawrence Scott, chaired by Alake Pilgrim.
New fiction from the authors of All Decent Animals and Light Falling on Bamboo
4.30–5.30 pm • Old Fire Station
OCM BOCAS PRIZE AND HOLLICK ARVON PRIZE
2013 announcement ceremony
The winners of the third annual OCM Bocas Prize and the first annual Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers’ Prize are announced
6.30–8.30 pm • Under the Trees, Hotel Normandie