Now in its 13th year, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, based in Trinidad and Tobago and arguably the Caribbean's most recognised literary festival, is gearing up for the live event, which takes place from April 28-30, 2023. It will be the festival's first in-person gathering since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of the lead-up, Bocas has announced the shortlist for its prestigious OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. The list is made up of the category winners of three different writing genres — poetry, fiction, and non-fiction — and for only the second time in the festival's history, all the finalists hail from Trinidad and Tobago.
Writers Anthony Joseph, whose collection “Sonnets for Albert” won the 2022 T.S. Eliot prize, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, whose debut novel “When We Were Birds” has been very well received; and Ira Mathur's memoir “Love the Dark Days,” which was also released to great reviews, will vie against one another for the lit fest's biggest award, which honours the best book by a Caribbean author over the past year.
It will likely be a difficult decision for the final team of OCM Bocas judges. The adjudicators for the poetry prize, which included 2020 OCM Bocas winner Richard Georges, Trinidad-born poet Desiree C. Bailey, and Cayman-born academic Emily Greenwood, described Joseph's poetry as “a tender and beautifully rendered eulogy for [his] 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.’
On learning that he had won Bocas’ prize for Caribbean Poetry, Joseph posted on Facebook:
[S]ee you in Trini. This is special. This is home.
Meanwhile, the fiction judges, Jamaican academic Ronald Cummings, Trinidadian-American novelist Lauren Francis-Sharma, and Barbadian writer Cherie Jones, who called Lloyd Banwo's novel “astounding,” were impressed by her “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.
Paper-Based, a book shop in Port of Spain that has long supported the work of Caribbean writers, agreed:
Some say Lloyd Banwo’s pen summons shades of Arundhati Roy, Earl Lovelace, or Toni Morrison. We believe she wields a power all her own: to read this novel is to feel it, rippling and electric on every page […] This is a debut determined to make your very soul take flight.
An actual dream I didn’t even know I had when I read on the Bocas stage for the first time in 2014. What an honour to be celebrated by your own community, where your work is seen and engaged with on its own terms.
In the non-fiction category, Guyana-born Lisa Outar, editor of the Journal of West Indian Literature, Ruth Borthwick, who chairs the literary organisation English PEN, and Vincentian writer Philip Nanton, said of Mathur's memoir:
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 […] her own version of the New World belonging that her literary mentor Derek Walcott urges.
Fellow author Amanda Smyth said of Mathur's debut:
Love the Dark Days is beautifully written, as compelling as it gets. Written with astonishing honesty.
Mathur herself called the honour of winning the non-fiction prize “an Easter benediction”:
This is a homecoming and as someone who has struggled between worlds I feel like I’ve come home, to the West Indies, to Trinidad and Tobago […] Deeply grateful to be with such beautiful books and wonderful humans with whom I share a love for our islands our people, our language.
The first time all three finalists came from the same country was in 2019, when Trinidad-born writer Kevin Adonis Browne won the overall prize for his non-fiction work, “High Mas.” The other finalists that year were Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, with her poetry collection “Doe Songs,” and Dionne Brand‘s novel, “Theory.”
The three chairs of the genre panels, Georges, Cummings and Outar, will comprise the final jury along with writer and chief judge Bernardine Evaristo, who was the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. The winner of the Bocas prize is typically announced on the penultimate day of the festival.