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If youth is wasted on the young, what about words?
On the first night of this year's NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which ran from April 26-May 1, 18-year-old Puerto Rican Viviana Prado-Núñez won first place in the 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. The award honours writing for young adult readers, and Prado-Núñez's self-published novel, The Art of White Roses, took its CAD $10,000 top prize.
On the last night of Bocas, Tobagonian Camryn Bruno—also 18—claimed the first-place prize of $50,000 (TT) in the First Citizens National Poetry Slam. The $20,000 (TT) second-place winner, Alexandra Stewart, is 19: both Bruno and Stewart have been rising stars in previous national spoken word intercols, often standing head and shoulders above their opponents.
Even the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, largely regarded as the festival's chief celebratory component, was signalled out for matters of youth. As Bocas founder and festival director Marina Salandy-Brown pointed out during the awards announcement ceremony on April 29, this marks the first year that all genre winners of the OCM Bocas Prizes, in fiction, non-fiction and poetry, have been under 40.
The distinction, as overall OCM Bocas Prize winner Jamaican Kei Miller pointed out, is both sanguine and sobering. Miller, who won the US $10,000 award for his novel Augustown, was speaking of the death of non-fiction category winner, Angelo Bissessarsingh. The adored historian and researcher from T&T died at 34 after his seeming defiance of a terminal diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. It was this defiance and good-natured, even jovial, tenacity that would see him research, compose and publish a handsome handful of books, including the ones that were awarded the OCM Bocas non-fiction prize: Virtual Glimpses into the Past/A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago.
As Angelo's brother, Kei Miller and poetry winner, Jamaican Safiya Sinclair stood on the Bocas stage brandishing shiny trophies, the rewards of youth—and the perils of trusting in youth's permanence—seemed clear. It is with both persistence and a damning, offhand carelessness that the ambitions of youth are cast aside, in life as in literature. Poets and novelists will be the first to self-deprecate their green verse, their awkward, fumbling debuts on the page. Yet, in youth, some of the most promising gems lie dormant, waiting for creative prospecting.
Consider Prime Minister Keith Rowley's memoir, From Mason Hall to Whitehall, which he read from on April 27 during this year's festival. A large segment of it is given over to Rowley's childhood in Tobago and, in its descriptions of simplicity, humble origins and boyhood romps, a humanising portrait of the politician emerges.
Everyone who is a leader of state, a captain of industry, a senator, sailor or short-term employee, was a child once, and it is to the memories of our childhood that we often return when we want to make meaning real in our stories.
Consider, too, that the stories of youth need not be written down to manifest themselves. At this year's Bocas, some of the strongest stories told never so much as touched the leaf of a printed page, and they were told by the young. In Human, Right?, Bocas' inaugural ole mas competition, masquerader Tracy Sankar-Charleau's son accompanied his mother's cloven-hoofed guest performance of Lagahoo, bedazzling and fearsome in his own right as a masked, glitter-faced Douen.
To encourage our young people that they can do and make anything—in books, in art, in live performance—this should take nothing away from those of us old enough to make decisions in favour of the young. The legacy of some of our veteran members of the arts community in T&T speaks strongly to a continually self-renewing legacy between the young and old. Inspiration for this mission can be found in no finer place than the speech of the 2017 OCM Bocas Henry Swanzy Awardee, Joan Dayal, the founder and owner of Paper Based Bookshop.
Even while standing on the solid platform of 30 years' service in the independent book-selling community, Dayal's mandate remains firmly focused on the future. Her passion, she said during her official recipient's speech on April 29, is the continued stimulation of local reading and writing communities, no matter how fledgling.
Dayal, like so many other wise voices at Bocas 2017, is attentive to the needs of the young: it can be but hoped that her encouragement, and Bocas' work, lights the lamps of youth voices bursting with so much to share.
Shivanee Ramlochan is a poet whose debut collection Everyone Know I am a Haunting is published by Peepal Tree Press and was spotlighted during the 2017 NGC Bocas Lit Fest. She is the festival blogger and writes on books for the Sunday Arts Section.
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