Boyd Tonkin: NGC Bocas Lit Fest is in keeping with Port of Spain's pedigree as a Caribbean writer's heaven
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 26 April 2014
Every year, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature travels to Stockholm to give an address that tells the world about the wellsprings of his or her art. Over the past two decades, one compact non-European city, seldom seen as a global metropolis of literature, has nonetheless loomed large in two separate speeches. To Derek Walcott (1992), it figured as "a writer's heaven", a tropical Athens where traditions blended in "a downtown babel … marginalised, polyglot", but still "a city ideal in its commercial and human proportions". For V S Naipaul (2001), it served as the place where he began to throw light on the "area of the darkness" that shrouded his origins, watching, recording and imagining: "The life of the street was open to me. It was an intense pleasure to observe from the verandah" the scenes that fed his breakthrough work.
That city is Port of Spain, Trinidad. Famously, Walcott the poet and Naipaul the novelist never agree on anything. But on the nourishment that Port of Spain offered them, they wholeheartedly concur. Since 2011, the city and island have hosted an annual literary week in keeping with this creative pedigree: the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, founded by the former BBC senior producer, and proud Trinidadian, Marina Salandy-Brown. (If you have ever enjoyed the Monday-morning brain tonic delivered by Melvyn Bragg or Andrew Marr on Start the Week, you have Marina to thank.)
This evening, at Trinidad's National Academy for the Performing Arts, the overall victor of the fourth OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature will be announced. The Bocas award has category contests for fiction, poetry and non-fiction, and then a final round to pick a supreme winner. This year, I have had the pleasurable responsibility of co-judging the fiction entries. As it happens, our sectional winner does have roots in Trinidad. I can, though, thump hand on heart and affirm that we read without insular fear or favour.
Our winner, As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni, refashions a bizarre episode of real history. His picaresque, polyphonic novel gives a fictional makeover to the story of the ill-fated Tropical Emigration Society. In the 1840s, it set in motion a utopian scheme to plant virgin Caribbean land with poor British settlers aided – after the end of slavery – by futuristic labour-saving machines. Inevitably, these dreams of an exploitation-free colony will come spectacularly to grief. Along the way, Antoni plays brilliant variations on the evergreen fantasy of a tropical "paradise", deploying all the linguistic verve, sly comedy and storytelling nous of a Caribbean Peter Carey.
Two other works made the fiction shortlist. Kerry Young's Gloria is the Jamaican writer's second novel. Like her garlanded debut Pao, it wraps its heroine's eventful progress around her island's tumultuous history from the late 1930s onwards, all captured in a singing, stinging narrative voice. In Claire of the Sea Light, the multi-award-winning Edwidge Danticat from Haiti takes the disappearance of a little girl from a fishing village as the focus for the hidden passions and histories of its people. This place of haunting beauty, gorgeously, evoked, also harbours horror and trauma.
Tonight, in Port of Spain, Robert Antoni will contend for the ultimate crown in Trinidad's literary carnival with the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, category winner for her collection Oracabessa, and Kei Miller, also from Jamaica, whose volume of essays Writing Down the Vision took the non-fiction award. Whoever prevails, three more stars will have joined the firmament of Derek Walcott's "writer's heaven".
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