Bocas Lit Fest

With bodies of work that span borders and decades, and having helped to launch some of the most talented contemporary Caribbean and diaspora writers, Funso Aiyejina and Merle Hodge have played an unmistakable role in shaping the region’s literary landscape. Now the Bocas Lit Fest is honouring them with the annual Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters.

Founded in 2013, the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award is named for the late BBC World Service radio producer Henry Swanzy. Irish by birth, Swanzy was a catalysing figure in the development of modern West Indian literature, having worked from 1946 to 1954 as producer of the influential Caribbean Voices radio programme, originally founded by Jamaican Una Marson.

The Bocas Lit Fest created the award in Swanzy’s memory to honour and celebrate the contributions of editors, broadcasters, publishers, critics, and others who have devoted their careers to developing Caribbean literature, often behind the scenes. Recipients of the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award are selected by the festival’s organising committee and honoured each year at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

The 2022 awardees, Funso Aiyejina and Merle Hodge, are being recognised for their work over more than two decades as creative writing teachers and mentors, in particular through the influential Cropper Foundation Writers’ Workshop. Aiyejina and Hodge led the residential workshop from its founding in 2000, guiding and mentoring participants from across the Caribbean, many of whom have gone on not only to be published, but acclaimed for their books. In addition, Aiyejina was the founder of the creative writing MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programme at the University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus, the first degree-granting programme in creative writing in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Born in Nigeria and resident in Trinidad and Tobago since 1989, Funso Aiyejina is a celebrated poet, short story writer, playwright, and scholar — a former Dean of Humanities and Education, and current professor emeritus at UWI, St. Augustine. He started his teaching career at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, and was lecturer and later professor at UWI from 1990 to 2014. Aiyejina won the 2000 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Africa region for his short fiction collection The Legend of the Rockhills and Other Stories. As a scholar, he is especially well known for his work on Earl Lovelace, including a biography and film.

A founding board member and former deputy festival director of the Bocas Lit Fest, Aiyejina retired from this role in 2020. He did anything and everything he could, as a director of Bocas Lit Fest, to ensure the NGO succeeded in its task of developing and promoting Caribbean writers, and for ten years he also remained a steadfast and much-loved member of Team Bocas, giving advice, judging our development awards, and — as deputy festival director — taking joint responsibility for the successful development of the annual National Poetry Slam.

Lauded as one of the first Black Caribbean women to publish a major work of fiction — her classic 1970 novel Crick Crack, Monkey — Merle Hodge is a beloved fiction writer, literary critic, social and cultural activist, and retired lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Education at UWI, St Augustine. During her UWI career across two campuses, she taught French, West Indian and African Diaspora Literature, and Creative Writing even before the founding of the MFA programme.

Both Aiyejina and Hodge continue to write and publish — each has published a new book in the past two years — but the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award recognises their crucial parallel work as teachers and mentors of younger authors, and their dedication to nurturing a generation of writers grounded in Caribbean literary tradition and language, exploring the region’s social complexities.

Their influence can be gauged not only in the testimony of their former students and mentees, but in the catalogue of works published and prizes won. Alumni of the Cropper Foundation Writers’ Workshop include no fewer than four winners of the OCM Bocas Prize alone — Tiphanie Yanique for fiction and poetry, Kei Miller for fiction and non-fiction, Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné for poetry, and Andre Bagoo for non-fiction — in addition to other regional and international awards.

Funso Aiyejina and Merle Hodge’s exemplary guidance, and their dedication as teachers, mentors, and champions of fresh talent, continue to fuel the Caribbean’s literary potential.

Over the past eight years, the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award has recognised a highly distinguished group of literary professionals. The award was presented to publishers John La Rose and Sarah White of New Beacon Books in 2013; literary critics Kenneth Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr in 2014; editor and broadcaster Margaret Busby in 2015; publisher Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press in 2016; bookseller Joan Dayal of Paper Based Bookshop in 2017; editor and scholar Anne Walmsley in 2018; publisher Ian Randle in 2019; scholar and editor Kamau Brathwaite in 2020; and literary critics Edward Baugh and Mervyn Morris in 2021.

The Bocas Henry Swanzy Award will be formally presented to Funso Aiyejina and Merle Hodge during a virtual ceremony on Saturday 30 April, as part of the 2022 NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

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