Welcome to the latest instalment of the Bocas Book Bulletin, a monthly round-up of Caribbean literary news, curated by the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, and published in the Sunday Express.
The Stranger Who Was Myself (Peepal Tree Press), a frank, witty, questioning memoir by Trinidadian writer Barbara Jenkins, records her childhood and youth in pre-Independence Trinidad, her departure on 31 August, 1962, on a government scholarship, her experience of 1960s Britain as a university student and then young wife and mother — and culminates with her eventual return to Trinidad. This portrait of the young writer is also a portrait of her extended family, the colonial city she grew up in, and its class and ethnic hierarchies. Jenkins’s sense of being perpetually an outsider or “stranger,” even to herself, gives her recollections a unique psychological insight. Her patient, supple prose propels the reader through a narrative that is at once unique but also representative of a generation of Trinidadians negotiating big questions of identity and belonging in the Independence era.
The Dreaming (Peepal Tree Press), the debut book of fiction by Trinidadian Andre Bagoo (author of several books of poems and one of essays), revolves around a group of queer men in contemporary Trinidad, searching variously for love, sex, family, and safety. The comic and the sinister are never far apart in these tales, which hearken back to the close social observation of VS Naipaul but are also unafraid to delve into the shadowy places of loneliness, desire, and heartbreak.
Radical Normalisation (Carcanet Press), the first full-length book of poems by Dominican writer Celia Sorhaindo, ranges in its concerns from family life to mental health, from the after effects of natural disaster — specifically, Hurricane Maria, which devastated Dominica in 2017 — to the place of a writer in a literary tradition, and what poetry can and cannot do to help us navigate personal and collective crises. Inquisitive and restless on the page, Sorhaindo’s distinctively Caribbean voice connects the everyday with the timeless.
If I Survive You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the debut book of fiction by Jamaican-American Jonathan Escoffery, offers a sequence of linked short stories about a Jamaican family who migrate to Miami in the 1970s, and the consequences over subsequent decades of this uprooting on the protagonist Trelawny. Born in the US, surrounded by but also in some ways excluded from the Jamaican culture of his parents, Trelawny’s story is one of survival through striving to make a home for himself in an often hostile society, with a vivacious attitude to luck and circumstance.
Writers of Dominica, 1920–2020 (Emmanuel Publishing House), compiled by Alick Lazare, offers a broad, rich overview of the literature of Dominica over the past century, combining a critical study of Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea with selections from 44 other writers of prose and poetry hailing from the Nature Isle — following “the growth of a national literature from the unstable and insecure social conditions during the colonial era to a more secure and confident society that prevailed in the post-independence period.”
Awards and prizes
The 2023 OCM Bocas Prize opened for entries in August. Sponsored by One Caribbean Media, and awarded annually since 2011, the cross-genre prize — for books of poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction — is considered the most prestigious award for writers of Caribbean birth or citizenship. The 2023 Prize is open to books published in the calendar year 2022. The overall winner is selected from the three genre category winners and is featured at the annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s biggest literary festival. For full information, including deadline dates and eligibility and submission guidelines, visit www.bocaslitfest.com/awards/ocm.
Writer H Nigel Thomas, who was born in St Vincent and the Grenadines and migrated to Canada in 1968, has been named the 2022 winner of the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize for Arts. Founded in 1964, awarded annually, and open to citizens and permanent residents of Canada, the Molson Prizes are “intended to encourage continuing contribution to the cultural and intellectual heritage of Canada,” and come with an award of CDN$50,000. Thomas is the author of numerous books, including novels, short story collections, and poetry.
The poetry collection Mother Muse by Jamaican Lorna Goodison has been shortlisted for the 2022 Derek Walcott Prize — “offered annually for a book of poetry by a non-US citizen published anywhere in the world”. Now in its third year, the prize comes with a cash award of US$1,000. The winner will be announced on 13 October.
No fewer than seven writers with links to the Caribbean have been named fellows of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL), as part of a 2022 cohort of nearly 100. They include Malika Booker, Fred D’Aguiar, Kit de Waal, Ferdinand Dennis, Hannah Lowe, Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Monique Roffey — with roots in Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago. Among the additional honorary fellows “who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of literature as publishers, agents, librarians, booksellers or producers” is Polly Patullo, founder of the Dominica-based Papillote Press. And the winner of the RSL’s 2022 Benson Medal, recognising lifetime achievement in literature, is writer and storyteller Sandra Agard, born in Britain to Guyanese parents. Founded in 1820 and based in the UK, the RSL is a charity which works to “reward literary merit and excite literary talent”.
The First Citizens National Poetry Slam will bring its Tenth Anniversary to a close by returning to the physical stage for the finals. The long-awaited in-person event will be held at the Naparima Bowl on 9 October, with a ticket cost of $200. Audiences can look forward to powerful performances by the Slam finalists as they challenge defending champion Derron Sandy for the grand prize of $50,000 and the coveted title of the FCNPS winner. Second and third placed finalists will receive $20,000 and $10,000 respectively, courtesy First Citizens.
The NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s Season of Independence, a month-long programme commemorating T&T’s 60th anniversary of Independence, launched on 31 August and runs until Republic Day on 24 September. It brings together newly commissioned writing by T&T authors that reflects on our past and future, and a series of discussions and readings that focus on recent books asking questions about the meaning of belonging and citizenship, all available for on demand online viewing. The full schedule is available at www.bocaslitfest.com/independence-2022.
Independent bookshop Paper Based (paperbased.org) shares its top-selling Caribbean titles for the past month:
1. The Bread the Devil Knead, by Lisa Allen-Agostini
2. Pleasantview, by Celeste Mohammed
3. The Dreaming, by Andre Bagoo
4. Love the Dark Days, by Ira Mathur
5. The Mark of Cane, by Ken Jaikaransingh
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