More Than A Literary Festival

Announcing the 2024 OCM Bocas Prize longlist

Books by nine authors, writing across a diverse range of subjects, styles, and approaches, have been longlisted for the 2024 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.

The OCM Bocas Prize, now in its 14th consecutive year, is the most coveted award for Caribbean books — the prize all Caribbean writers hope to win. Annually, 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. Five different countries and territories are represented among the authors of the nine books longlisted for the 2024 Prize.

In the poetry category, the three books longlisted are by younger writers widely considered among the most talented of their generation.

Self-Portrait as Othello by UK-based Jamaican Jason Allen-Paisant is “intimately rhapsodic,” write the judges. Allen-Paisant “answers Shakespeare’s gamble with an Othello as sure as he is pitched to the contours of a 21st-century vulnerability.” The book, they suggest, “at its heart wrestles with inheritance — cultural, familial, literary, and more.” Allen-Paisant won the 2022 OCM Bocas Prize with his debut book Thinking With Trees, and Self-Portrait as Othello has already been named winner of the Forward Prize for Poetry and T.S. Eliot Prize, an extraordinary achievement.

Fellow Jamaican Ishion Hutchinson’s School of Instructions “attempts, in a language attentive to the limits of speech, the slippage of word into sound, to shake up our sense of the historic record.” Drawing on extensive research, the book explores the experience of West Indian volunteer soldiers in British regiments during the First World War. “It is a work of meticulous re-inscription which, because of the scope of its formal ambitions, reminds us of the poem’s transformative capacity not only to refer to events but to be an event itself.”

The third book of poems on the longlist is The Ferguson Report: An Erasure, by US Virgin Islands-born Nicole Sealey. A bold and moving formal experiment, it reworks the official report of the US government’s investigation into racist police and court procedures in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. The book, say the judges, “takes as its painstaking charge a poetry of realignment. It achieves, by visceral and ecstatic restraint, the poet’s remarkable control of an incremental song culled from the unspoken yield of racial myths.”

In addition to the three longlisted books, the poetry judges gave special mention to two additional books: Belmont Portfolio, by John Robert Lee, and The Last Train, by Mervyn Taylor.

The writers of the three books longlisted in the fiction category range from an acclaimed veteran to a debut author.

Ocean Stirrings: A Work of Fiction in Tribute to Louise Langdon Norton Little, Working Mother and Activist, Mother of Malcolm X and Seven Siblings by US-based Grenadian Merle Collins “richly imagines the mother of Malcolm X as a person in her own right and highlights the intricate networks of personal and political alliances of the era,” remark the judges. “Driven by meticulous research, an expansive fictive and poetic imagination, and the music of Caribbean orality, the book situates itself among the important contributions to Caribbean memory.”

Hungry Ghosts by Trinidadian Kevin Jared Hosein offers “a compelling portrait of barrack life in the 1940s Trinidad by a masterful story teller,” the judges write. They call it “a work of historical fiction which resonates today in its exploration of the personal and the political. Themes of grief, loss, power and desire, in all their manifestations, are acutely observed and handled with a deft touch.”

The third shortlisted book of fiction is You Were Watching from the Sand, the debut short story collection by Haitian-American Juliana Lamy. “Whimsical and playful on the surface, these stories broach themes as wide and varied as the amorphousness of the spirit and the inherent ambiguities housed within splintered lives. All of this told in a voice that is remarkably original and confident,” say the judges. “The agility and poetry of the language is pure magic.”

The non-fiction category features another US-based, Haiti-born writer, alongside authors of accomplished biographical works.

Harvesting Haiti: Reflections on Unnatural Disasters is a collection of essays, talks, and other texts by Myriam J.A. Chancy, all written in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. The book, write the judges, “insists not only on the enduring drive for self-determination of the Haitian people, but also on revealing the multiple modes in which they have been exploited and their autonomy subverted under the pretence of solidarity and aid … It is a book about liberation, history and the ongoing struggle for self-determination in a hostile world.”

Equal to Mystery: In Search of Harold Sonny Ladoo, the debut book by Trinidadian Christopher Laird, is a “groundbreaking investigation of one of the Caribbean’s most influential yet mysterious literary figures,” says the judges — “a stunning bricolage that weaves together elements of biography, memoir, critical analysis, and close textual reading in order to address an epistemological conundrum: who was Harold Sonny Ladoo? … Mastering a range of sources, including never-before-published archive materials, Laird builds a complex portrait of an unquestionably brilliant author, but does this in a way that poses even more urgent questions about Ladoo’s legacy.”

The final longlisted non-fiction book is How to Say Babylon: A Memoir by US-based Jamaican Safiya Sinclair — who previously won the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Poetry with her debut Cannibal. Written, comment the judges, “with a novelist’s sensibility,” How to Say Babylon “reminds us of the expansive possibilities of creative non-fiction, bringing to the fore with unforgettable poetic verve a voice that is fierce, courageous, deeply intelligent and empathetic, its nerve endings vibrating out from a specific experience of Rastafarianism into the currents of the wider world.”

In addition to the longlisted titles, the non-fiction judges gave special mention to one further book: Uprooting: From the Caribbean to the Countryside — Finding Home in an English Garden by Marchelle Farrell.

In the second stage of judging for the 2024 OCM Bocas Prize, the judges will announce the winners in the three genre categories on Sunday 7 April. These will go on to compete for the overall Prize of US$10,000, to be announced on Saturday 27 April, during the 14th annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain.

The 2024 Prize is judged by a panel of distinguished Caribbean and international writers and literary professionals. Canisia Lubrin, St. Lucia-born poet and the 2021 winner of the overall OCM Bocas Prize, chairs the poetry panel, joined by British poet and editor Kayo Chingonyi and Jamaican poet Ann-Margaret Lim. The fiction panel is chaired by Canada-based Trinidad-born novelist Rabindranath Maharaj, joined by UK literary agent Elise Dillsworth and Jamaican novelist and academic Curdella Forbes. The chair of the non-fiction panel, Guyana-born, Canada-based scholar D. Alissa Trotz, is joined by T&T writer Andre Bagoo — himself the winner of the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize for Non-Fiction — and US-based Jamaican academic and sx salon editor Rachel Mordecai.

The overall chair of the 2024 cross-genre judging panel is the acclaimed Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Her numerous awards include a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2009 and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2017, as well as the OCM Bocas Prize for Non-Fiction in 2011 and the OCM Bocas Prize for Fiction in 2020.

NGC is the title sponsor of the Bocas Lit Fest festival events; OCM, First Citizens, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, and the British Council are main sponsors; Massy Foundation and The UWI are sponsors.

The 2024 NGC Bocas Lit Fest will run from Thursday 25 to Sunday 28 April, at the National Library and Old Fire Station and other venues around Port of Spain.

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