Ranging from debut authors to already celebrated prizewinners, nine writers have been longlisted for the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, sponsored by One Caribbean Media, owner of the Trinidad and Tobago Express newspaper, TV6, and the OCM radio network.
Now in its 13th year, the OCM Bocas Prize is considered the most coveted award dedicated to Caribbean writing. It recognises books in three genre categories — poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction — published by authors of Caribbean birth or citizenship in the preceding year. The authors of the nine books longlisted for the 2023 Prize have roots in five different Caribbean countries.
A diversity of styles and voices characterises the three books longlisted in the poetry category.
The judges describe The Day-Breakers by Grenada-born, Canada-based Michael Fraser as “breathtakingly assured.” This collection explores the lives and legacies of Black Canadian soldiers during the US Civil War. “Fraser’s poems unearth a new and untold world of Black experience from a very familiar arc of history with a rich linguistic curiosity…. The poet’s use of language illumines this collection in a way that conjoins Fraser to that broad stem of the diaspora represented by the finest Caribbean Canadian poets,” say the judges.
Trinidad-born, UK-based Anthony Joseph’s Sonnets for Albert — recently named the 2022 winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize — “is at once a tender and beautifully rendered eulogy for the poet’s father, and a triumph of technical formality,” according to the judges. “The collection moves with the jaunty carriage of the father it honours, marrying the rigid scaffolding of the form with the supple musicality of Trinidadian Creole…. Joseph’s mastery is what accomplishes this effect with a grace that recalls that ‘we shall all be rooted in this well of hours, eventually.’”
The third collection of poems on the longlist is de book of Joseph by Jamaica-born, Canada-based Pamela Mordecai — the third volume in a poetic trilogy that retells the Biblical story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, “This book-length poem illustrates the continual modernist project of the Caribbean to take and make the old world new,” write the judges, “this time through reframing and respeaking the histories, cultures, and languages of antiquity via Jamaican Patwa…. Mordecai’s de book of Joseph is a stunning prosodic and linguistic achievement.”
In addition to the three longlisted books, the poetry judges gave special mention to two additional books: Border Zone, by John Agard, and Narcissus, by Andre Bagoo.
The fiction category brings together two acclaimed debut novelists and one of the most celebrated contemporary Caribbean writers.
Moon Witch, Spider King by US-based Jamaican Marlon James — a past winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for fiction — “is truly impressive in its ability to take us into and make us feel and imagine other lives and worlds,” write the judges. “This book is a thrilling testament to James’s superb storytelling skills…. It whispers of the here and now, probing the intersectional nature of oppression while delivering a transcendent otherworldly experience to its readers.”
The novel When We Were Birds by UK-based Trinidadian Ayanna Lloyd Banwo “illuminates matters of duty, love, and devotion across divisions between the dead and the living…. When We Were Birds delivers an intimate, resonant, and unforgettable narrative of love that makes the most wondrous, wild, and mystical aspects of our Caribbean feel dearly familiar to all of us,” the judges conclude.
The Island of Forgetting, the debut novel by Barbadian-Canadian Jasmine Sealy, reimagines Ancient Greek myth in a Caribbean setting. “Sealy’s epic saga about four generations of a Barbadian family is elegantly and empathetically told in a narrative that examines selfhood and sanity in a small place,” say the judges. “She writes with a sultry assuredness about the brokenness that secrets can birth, and her craft shines through in this lushly imagined story.”
The judges for the non-fiction category have chosen three books that range from personal memoir to cultural studies.
Love the Dark Days by India-born Trinidadian Ira Mathur is a “richly layered account of a life lived across multiple continents and spaces marked by colonialism,” remark the judges. “Mathur unflinchingly confronts more intimate internalised spaces of fear, uncertainty, and loneliness to arrive at her own version of the new world belonging that her literary mentor Derek Walcott urges.”
Buyers Beware: Insurgency and Consumption in Caribbean Popular Culture by Trinidad-born, US-based Patricia Joan Saunders “examines an impressive range of contemporary cultural and embodied practices in the areas of art, music, literature, Carnival, cricket, performance, skin bleaching, etc., to argue for the varied and complex ways that Caribbean consumers engage popular culture in local and global markets.” This, say the judges, “is a text that Caribbean cultural analysts and others will return to often.”
The final book on the longlist is Diary of a Recovering Politician by Belizean Godfrey Smith — a past winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for non-fiction. “In this highly readable collection of essays,” say the judges, “at times humorous and at others philosophical and impassioned, Smith offers us a compelling picture of a true Caribbean man who has important things to say about day-to-day courtroom work in the Eastern Caribbean, problems of regionalism, the Grenada revolution, the nature of Caribbean politics, and of the connections of the Caribbean to other parts of the globe shaped by brutal processes of colonialist extraction.”
The non-fiction judges gave special mention to one additional book: Clientism and Democracy in Belize: From My Hand to Yours, by Dylan Vernon.
In the next stage of judging for the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize, the judges will announce the winners in the three genre categories on Sunday 2 April. These will go on to compete for the overall Prize of US$10,000, to be announced on Saturday 29 April, during the 13th annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest — returning this year to a fully in-person format.
The 2023 judging panels for the OCM Bocas Prize bring together Caribbean and international writers, critics, and literary organisers. Richard Georges, poet and academic from the British Virgin Islands and the 2020 winner of the overall OCM Bocas Prize, chairs the poetry panel, joined by Trinidad-born poet Desiree C. Bailey and Caymanian academic Emily Greenwood. The fiction panel is chaired by Canada-based Jamaican academic Ronald Cummings, joined by Trinidadian-American writer Lauren Francis-Sharma and Barbadian writer Cherie Jones. On the non-fiction panel, chair Lisa Outar, the Guyana-born editor-in-chief of the Journal of West Indian Literature, is joined by Ruth Borthwick, chair of English PEN, and Barbados-based Vincentian writer Philip Nanton.
The overall chair of the 2023 cross-genre judging panel is the British writer Bernardine Evaristo, past winner of the Booker Prize.
NGC is the title sponsor of the Bocas Lit Fest festival events; OCM, First Citizens, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, NLCB, and the British Council are main sponsors; Massy Foundation and The UWI are sponsors.
The 2023 NGC Bocas Lit Fest will run from Friday 28 to Sunday 30 April, at the National Library and Old Fire Station and other venues around Port of Spain.