Writers with roots in five different Caribbean territories have been longlisted for the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, sponsored by One Caribbean Media, owner of the Express newspapers, TV6, and the OCM radio network.
The OCM Bocas prize, now in its eleventh year, is internationally considered the leading literary award for Caribbean writers. The Prize recognises books in three genre categories — poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction — published by authors of Caribbean birth or citizenship in the preceding year. Of the nine books longlisted for the 2021 Prize, five are by writers born in Trinidad and Tobago, with the other longlisted authors representing Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, and St. Lucia.
In the poetry category, the longlist brings together three writers ranging from a literary veteran to a debut author. The Dyzgraphxst, the second book by Canada-based St. Lucian Canisia Lubrin, is described by the judges as “a journey where meaning is often an unpaved road, but the ride is richly satisfying…. Reading this collection makes you hold your breath and dive to the ocean-floor and emerge riding the waves.”Guabancex is the first poetry collection by Celia Sorhaindo of Dominica. Named for a Taíno storm deity, the book was inspired by the impact of 2017’s Hurricane Maria on the author’s home country. These poems, write the judges, “build momentum …. spiralling in and out, searching to find language, form and expression to hold the vastness and the vulnerability of life on an island…. Sorhaindo manages to convey a collective trauma that moves through and beyond pain and loss to what is valuable and possible.” And Country of Warm Snow by Trinidadian Mervyn Taylor — the author’s seventh book of poems — tackles the experience of living between two countries over five decades. “Smoothness, clarity, and a sense of narrative that does not break with the line: these characteristics make Country of Warm Snow a rare book that reads with deceptive ease,” say the judges. “These poems move fluidly across time and borders while being rooted deeply in place.”
The fiction category includes two debut novels and the latest book by a former winner of the OCM Bocas Prize. These Ghosts Are Family, the first book by US-based Jamaican Maisy Card, portrays a family and its entanglements over multiple generations. “At its heart,” say the judges, “is the story of Caribbean enslavement and the legacy of trauma it has passed down from generation to generation. The way it tackles this live and current theme is always fresh and innovative.” It is joined by Love After Love, by UK-based, Trinidad-born Ingrid Persaud — a story of deep love, deep violence, and the meaning of family. “Above and beyond anything else,” write the judges, “Persaud creates characters that we truly care for — feeling their highs and lows, cheering when they succeed and mourning their losses when they fail.” The third book in the category is The Mermaid of Black Conch by UK-based, Trinidad-born Monique Roffey, who previously won the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Archipelago. Her new novel is “a unique Caribbean fable that takes the familiar story of a mermaid abruptly thrust onshore and brings it to a new place,” according to the judges. “It reads like the work of a novelist in command of her material and focused on using a mythic ‘then’ to speak to now.”
“Caribbean non-fiction is in excellent hands,” write the judges for this genre category, including books ranging from personal essay to memoir to cultural criticism. The “boldly experimental” memoir of colour by US-based Trinidadian Katherine Agyemaa Agard, which incorporates visual material into its narrative, “does not hide shame or confusion as the author comes to terms with how others interpret her colour, race, sexuality, and art — and how she thinks about herself.” The Undiscovered Country, a “wonderfully intelligent” collection of diverse essays on literary, artistic, and political topics by Trinidadian Andre Bagoo, “is full of insights and surprises,” write the judges. “Where else would you find Trinidadian street food in the same volume as an appraisal of Thom Gunn’s poetry, or Dylan Thomas rubbing shoulders with soca?” Formal innovation continues in the final non-fiction book, the memoir Musings, Mazes, Muses, Margins by Gordon Rohlehr, the eminent Guyanese literary scholar based in Trinidad since the late 1960s. Including autobiography told through a split personality and a playful dream diary, the book shows “at turns, the dark wit of Jouvay, the gleeful frenzy of the Savannah stage, and the contemplation of an Ash Wednesday service,” the judges report.
In the next stage of judging for the OCM Bocas Prize, the judges will announce the winners in the three genre categories on Sunday 28 March. These will then go on to compete for the overall Prize of US$10,000, which will be announced on Saturday 24 April, during the annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest.
The 2021 judging panels for the OCM Bocas Prize bring together Caribbean and international writers, academics, and literary organisers. Opal Palmer Adisa, Jamaican poet and head of the University of the West Indies Institute for Gender and Development Studies, chairs the poetry panel, joined by Trinidadian poet Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné and Guyanese-Canadian writer Kaie Kellough. Malachi McIntosh, editor of the journal Wasafiri, chairs the fiction panel, joined by Roland Gulliver, director of the Toronto International Festival of Authors, and writer Tiphanie Yanique of the US Virgin Islands. On the non-fiction panel, chair Rosamond S. King — a Trinidadian-American writer and scholar — is joined by Guyanese-American writer Gaiutra Bahadur and British writer Blake Morrison.
The overall chair of the 2021 cross-genre judging panel is Trinidad-born, UK-based writer Vahni Capildeo, winner of the 2016 Forward Prize.
The 2021 NGC Bocas Lit Fest which runs from Friday 23 to Sunday 25 April will take place online. NGC is the title sponsor of the Bocas Lit Fest festival events, First Citizens is lead sponsor, OCM is a prize sponsor, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, NLCB, Massy foundation and UWI are sponsors.