A few years ago, in a discussion about the possibility of a Caribbean literature prize, I proposed that it wasn't a good idea, as the politics would make it into a literary Special Olympics (no insult intended to the Special Olympics). Now the OCM Bocas prize is here, and to take nothing from the winners, a definite politics and aesthetic are visible. (Here is where I disclose one of my books was entered a couple of years ago and was never seen again.)
Politics aside, I had other trepidations about Bocas from experience with local/international cultural enterprises, like CCA7 (Caribbean Contemporary Arts). They tend to start with grandiose aims and end up giving whatever resources they mulct to a few people. In this regard, Bocas has proven me wrong.
While the usual parasites have attached themselves, Bocas founder Marina Salandy-Brown has made admirable efforts to ensure broad-based participation.
There's a children's storytelling caravan, which stops in Mayaro, Chaguanas, San Fernando, Cedros, Tobago, and other areas which Port-of-Spain usually doesn't notice. She's also noticed that there's a whole other population in Trinidad with a literary tradition of its own (whose Ur-text is the Ramayana) which "national culture" and its agents seem not to notice. Bocas is less than ten years old, and has already attracted positive international notice, and helped aspiring writers in Trinidad & Tobago, and the region.
Again, more praise.
Okay, enough with the praise, let's get back to the politics and aesthetics. Ms Salandy-Brown has no control over this. The adjudication panels are independent, and some of the people on them are scholars and artists whose talent and integrity are beyond reproach. So this isn't anyone's "fault" so much as a manifestation of an ideological drift which has been swirling for some time, to recolonise the term "Caribbean."
The "Caribbean" in this iteration is a trope of exoticism. Palm trees, colourful, violent natives, music, Carnival and the beach, and simple, honest brutes who can only stare in wonder at America and England, speaking a curious but delightful Creole.
This notion is as old as Caliban, but now curiously thrives among the West Indian clerisy which seems to agree it's not a bad thing anymore. But it is, and a few people have pointed it out–our three Nobel laureates (including Sir W Arthur Lewis) and some writers over the last few decades.
Edgar Mittelholzer summed it up presciently in 1945 (November 13), in this newspaper: "Except for one or two rare students and travellers, the English and Americans consider us West Indians to be nothing more than a pack of 'natives' with 'quaint' customs...we are depicted as a backward people of the Tropics...they see us as possessed of strange superstitions and ignorant, pagan beliefs. To them, it is ridiculous to suggest that we could be possibly interested in Bach or Beethoven, or Shakespeare...".
(Incidentally, Zora Neale Hurston's iconic 1950 essay, What White Publishers Won't Print, makes the identical observation about African American literature. It's worth noting that Mittleholzer predated her.)
I've raised this issue (of becoming that tourist brochure cardboard cut-out willingly) before, but am in the happy situation to now illustrate it using one of the books shortlisted for the Bocas fiction category. This is Trinidadian/Canadian Andre Alexis's 15 Dogs, which won the Giller Prize in Canada, among other awards. This book throws into relief what Wilson Harris called the regional illiteracy of the imagination–the confinement of the creative imagination to a few inane, self-immolating topics, which are approved of by metropolitan publishers and producers, and now the local culturati–which affects entire societies for the worse.
Alexis's novel provides a good example of a literate, vigorous imagination. It begins with 15 dogs in a kennel in Toronto being given speech and consciousness by two Greek gods out on a bender in a Toronto bar. Using this device of changing perspective, Alexis creates a multilayered story which works as postcolonial parable, secular humanist fable, and a very moving and entertaining story. Yes, it's been done before–from Animal Farm to Planet of the Apes–but another of Alexis's achievements is to have carried out Pound's dictum: to take the familiar and "make it new."
Of course, it behooved Alexis to implicate the actual geography of Toronto into his imaginative geography, but the narrative and force of its ideas don't rely upon it. This is a universal story, and could happen anywhere. But, I wonder, could it happen in Port-of-Spain? First of all the dogs are gifted with English, not Creole, and while there is a brief excursion into the idea of "dogg-itude," the issue of "dog-ness" is worked out early in the narrative and it doesn't subvert the story. The dogs realise their difference from other dogs, and there arises a conflict: how to remain "authentic" dogs? One answer is that the new language must be banished, under threat of violence.
In the dogs' journeys are familiar cogitations on hierarchy, status and individual purpose. These excursions are also familiar, from Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and even The Tempest, but 15 Dogs adds enough to be remarkable.
There's so much in here that it hardly does the book justice to write a half-a-column about it. All I can say is read it.
Bocas is bringing Andre Alexis to Trinidad for this year's edition. Since there's always a great desire for exemplars in our miserable state, Trinidadians and Tobagonians should take great pride in the fact that 15 Dogs was written by one of us. The more precocious might then survey the existing literature and see if anything past or present compare for imaginative and intellectual breadth, skill and wonderful lightness of touch. I doubt an honest observer would be impressed by the contrast.