Olive Senior, one of the Caribbean’s best-loved writers, has been awarded the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize, for her book of short fiction The Pain Tree.
The announcement was greeted with excitement by an audience of fellow writers and other literature lovers, at a packed awards ceremony on the night of Saturday 30 April, in Port of Spain’s historic Old Fire Station.
The event was a highlight of the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual festival of words, stories, and ideas. The OCM Bocas Prize, sponsored by One Caribbean Media, comes with an award of US$10,000. In her acceptance speech, the much-admired writer thanked OCM for recognising that “writers have to eat too.”
Senior was chosen from a shortlist of three, made up of the genre category winners of the prize. For the first time it was an all-female short list. Tiphanie Yanique of the US Virgin Islands was the winner in the poetry category with her book Wife, and Jamaican Jacqueline Bishop won the non-fiction category with her book The Gymnast and Other Positions. They each received an award of US$3,000.
The prize judges commended Senior’s prose in The Pain Tree for its “command of … every register of Jamaican patwah.” The short stories in this collection, wrote the judges, “hover around a persistent question: What lies just below the skin of everyday life? Lifting the veil — the caul, the face customised to the world’s demands — leads to surprising discoveries about apparently ordinary lives.”
Based in Canada, Senior is a past honouree of the OCM Bocas Prize, winning the non-fiction category in 2015 for her book Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. She is also a past winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1987, for her book Summer Lightning. She has been recognised by the Institute of Jamaica with a Gold Musgrave Medal, her home country’s highest award for the arts.
2016 is the sixth year of the OCM Bocas Prize, now established as one of the region’s most coveted and prestigious literary awards. In 2015, the Prize was won by St. Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien for his debut collection Sounding Ground. Other past winners are Robert Antoni for his novel As Flies to Whatless Boys (2014), Monique Roffey for Archipelago (2013), and Earl Lovelace for Is Just a Movie (2012). Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott was winner of the inaugural prize in 2011, for his poetry collection White Egrets. Olive Senior is the first Jamaican winner of the overall Prize.
The final judging panel for the prize was headed by celebrated Trinidadian-Canadian writer Dionne Brand. Other judges were writer Ramabai Espinet, scholars Gemma Robinson and J. Michael Dash, and permanent Prize vice-chair Marjorie Thorpe.