Books by authors from Trinidad and Tobago have swept the three genre categories of the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.
Writers Anthony Joseph, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, and Ira Mathur have won the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction categories of the annual Prize, considered the most prestigious award for Caribbean writing, sponsored by One Caribbean Media. It is the second time in the 13-year history of the award that T&T authors have won all three categories. They will now go on to compete for the overall Prize, recognising the best book published by an author of Caribbean birth or citizenship in the past year.
Anthony Joseph’s Sonnets for Albert has won the poetry category not long after being awarded the 2022 T.S. Eliot Prize. The OCM Bocas Prize judges describe it as “a tender and beautifully rendered eulogy for the poet’s father, and a triumph of technical formality. 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.’” Now based in the United Kingdom, Joseph is also an accomplished writer of fiction and an acclaimed musician.
The poetry judges for the Prize were chaired by past OCM Bocas Prize winner Richard Georges of the British Virgin Islands, joined by Trinidad-born poet Desiree C. Bailey and Cayman-born academic Emily Greenwood.
In the fiction category, the winner is When We Were Birds, the debut novel by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, also now based in the UK. “There are novelists who are called to bear witness,” write the judges. “Lloyd Banwo is one of them. This astounding debut novel illuminates matters of duty, love, and devotion across divisions between the dead and the living. An ambitious tale that is part elegy, part ode, 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 fiction judges were chaired by Jamaican academic Ronald Cummings, alongside Trinidadian-American novelist Lauren Francis-Sharma and Barbadian writer Cherie Jones.
The final winner, in the non-fiction category, is the memoir Love the Dark Days by India-born Trinidadian Ira Mathur, already well known as a journalist. It is her debut book. “In this richly layered account of a life lived across multiple continents and spaces marked by colonialism, Mathur boldly and bravely mines the brutal intimacies and traumas of her grandmother’s, mother’s, and her own life as she works towards finding belonging in Trinidad and Tobago,” comment the judges. “While grand in scope, as it limns generations leading lives constrained by class, caste, colour, loss, and gendered and colonial violence, 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.”
Guyana-born Lisa Outar, editor in chief of the Journal of West Indian Literature, is the chair of the non-fiction judges, joined by Ruth Borthwick, chair of the literary organisation English PEN, and the Vincentian writer Philip Nanton.
The overall winner of the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize, chosen from the three genre winners and awarded US$10,000, will be announced on Saturday 29 April during the 2023 NGC Bocas Lit Fest. The other category winners will receive US$3,000.
The three chairs of the genre panels now make up the final jury, joined by chief judge Bernardine Evaristo, celebrated writer and joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.