For the second time in a row, a debut writer from Trinidad and Tobago has won the award for outstanding Caribbean book of the past year.
When We Were Birds, the first novel by T&T’s Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, is the winner of the overall 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, which comes with a cash award of US$10,000, sponsored by One Caribbean Media. It follows 2022 overall winner Pleasantview by Celeste Mohammed, also a debut book.
Published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton and in the US by Doubleday, When We Were Birds was described by the prize judges as an “astounding” debut, “an ambitious tale that is part elegy, part ode.” It was previously named fiction category winner for the OCM Bocas Prize, contending for the overall award with the poetry and non-fiction winners.
Bernardine Evaristo, chief judge for the prize, made the announcement during the award ceremony on Saturday 29 April during this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest. The ceremony also honoured poetry winner Anthony Joseph (for his collection Sonnets for Albert) and non-fiction winner Ira Mathur (for her memoir Love the Dark Days).
The ceremony, held at historic Mille Fleurs, was also the occasion for the presentation of the 2023 Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters to Professor Emerita Sandra Pouchet Paquet, a Trinidad-born academic and editor.
Evaristo — winner of the 2019 Booker Prize — was joined on the OCM Bocas Prize final judging panel by Jamaican academic Ronald Cummings, writer Richard Georges of the British Virgin Islands, and Guyana-born academic and editor Lisa Outar.
In their formal citation, the fiction judges wrote: “There are novelists who are called to bear witness. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is one of them…. When We Were Birds is effortlessly told in a lyrical style all the writer’s own. Lloyd Banwo’s assured storytelling and poetic prose is magical and hypnotic. 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.”
Now based in Britain, where she recently completed a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is a familiar presence on the NGC Bocas Lit Fest stage, where she has participated over the years in the festival’s New Talent Showcase and as an event host and moderator. When We Were Birds was previously named one of the best debut novels of 2022 by the UK Observer.
The 2023 NGC Bocas Lit Fest concludes its three-day programme on Sunday 30 April, with events running all day at the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago. The finale of the festival is the 2023 First Citizens National Poetry Slam, at the Central Bank Auditorium. See www.bocaslitfest.com for further programme details.
Past winners of the OCM Bocas Prize
Celeste Mohammed’s novel-in-stories Pleasantview (2022); Canisia Lubrin’s poetry collection The Dyzgraphxst (2021); Richard Georges’ poetry collection Epiphaneia (2020); Kevin Adonis Browne’s essay and photography collection High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture (2019); Jennifer Rahim’s short fiction collection Curfew Chronicles (2018); Kei Miller’s novel Augustown (2017); Olive Senior’s short fiction collection The Pain Tree (2016); Vladimir Lucien’s debut poetry collection Sounding Ground (2015); Robert Antoni’s novel As Flies to Whatless Boys (2014); Monique Roffey’s novel Archipelago (2013); and Earl Lovelace’s novel Is Just a Movie (2012). The late Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott was the winner of the inaugural prize in 2011, for the poetry collection White Egrets.
The National Gas Company is title sponsor of the festival; OCM, First Citizens, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, NLCB, and the British Council are main sponsors; Massy Foundation and UWI are sponsors.