“Always a good time to support young people”

by Nicholas Laughlin on September 3, 2010

The Allen Prize for Young Writers

I’ve known Lisa Allen-Agostini since we were both undergraduates at UWI-St Augustine — long enough ago that I have to squint and do some mental math to work out the year. The very first time we met, she was introduced to me as a writer. At a stage when most of our peers were still happily clueless about the direction of their lives and careers, Lisa had not only a strong sense of vocation, but a body of published work.

We’ve been friends since then, and over the years I’ve published her writing in pretty much every one of the large and small magazines and journals I’ve worked on, from a very modest photocopied undergrad lit mag called Prometheus to the CRB. (Lisa’s most recent contribution to the latter is her interview with Christian Campbell, published earlier this week.) She is a poet and fiction writer — her young adult novel The Chalice Project appeared two years ago, and she’s working on the sequel. She’s also working on a collection of poems. She co-edited the Trinidad Noir fiction anthology. She’s been a journalist and critic with the daily press here in Trinidad, and used to write a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian. She’s also raising two very smart and opinionated daughters. In between all this, she’s managed to launch an impressive and inspiring literary project: the Allen Prize for Young Writers.

Named in honour of Lisa’s father, the Allen Prize is an annual competition for young writers, aged twelve to nineteen, resident in Trinidad and Tobago. There are two age categories, and awards in four genres: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and drama. The Allen Prize programme also includes a series of free seminars for teenage writers, in which established authors from across the Caribbean share insights on literary craft and discipline and the business of publishing. Each year’s winners get a modest cash prize, publication of their work, and the chance to participate in a two-day workshop in which they will benefit from individual attention and instruction. The prize is incorporated as a non-profit organisation.

It’s an ambitious endeavour, aimed at making a crucial intervention in Trinidad and Tobago’s literary scene and education system. As Lisa has written:

The role of the writer can be transformative for his people. Our best writers show us facets of our everyday lives under a new, shimmering light: Walcott giving angry voice to the multi-racial Caribbean man Shabine in “The Schooner Flight”, or the gleaming prose of V.S. Naipaul describing bumbling Biswas trying to make his way in the world.

Through the voice of the writer we are glorified, abashed, chastised, elucidated. There is no one thing a writer does, or should do. It is not a prescriptive position, but rather a flexible, human one.

I’m proud and honoured to be one of the directors of the Allen Prize, and to have played a very small part in getting the programme up and running. I’m even more proud of Lisa, and her insistence that writers have an obligation to support their peers and successors; her conviction that literature, in whatever form it takes, is “absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of a society.”

The 2010 Allen Prize opened for submissions on 1 September. The final deadline is 30 November. You can find out more about the submission process here. Please share this information with any young writers you may know, twelve to nineteen, living in Trinidad and Tobago. And if you’d like to support the programme — financially or by volunteering your time — you can contact the Allen Prize here.

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Lisa Allen-Agostini. Photograph by Richard Acosta

The day after the 2010 Allen Prize opened for entries, I asked Lisa a few questions via email about why she decided to undertake this initiative, her own experience as a young writer, and what the powers-that-be (or the powers-that-spend) might do to support writing in Trinidad and Tobago:

Antilles: The Allen Prize is a major undertaking. It’s not just a prize, it’s also an ongoing education programme. I’m still a bit in awe of the ambition of what you’ve started. Why did you decide to do this, and why now?

Lisa Allen-Agostini: A few years ago I thought about creating a prize for young writers. When I first conceptualised it, it really was just a prize. I wanted the prize to be sustainable, not a one-off thing, and that meant putting a structure in place with a foundation and a board. Then everyone, including the board, encouraged me to broaden the scope of it and make it more than just a prize, so all the additional elements — the seminars, the workshop, the publishing programme — were born.

It’s a good time for this because it’s always a good time to support young people, and writing has been my passion from childhood.

Antilles: At what age did you start writing?

LAA: I remember keeping a journal from about age six, but I didn’t write my first poem until I was about eight or nine. I wrote everything: skits, short stories, novellas, and poems — I even wrote a serial one page at a time, and passed it out in class — but somehow I didn’t enter a lot of competitions. When I was in lower sixth form, I entered and won the Clico Poetry Writing Competition, which was for many years the main opportunity for young poets in Trinidad and Tobago to get critical feedback and a bit of a reward. It was tremendously validating (it got my picture on the front page of the Trinidad Guardian!), and I think it helped confirm for me that I did in fact want to be a professional writer. Part of the reason I wanted to start a writers’ prize is the memory of how important that Clico prize was to me at the time.

Antilles: If the Trinidad and Tobago government or some major player in the private sector asked you how they could support writing and writers here, what would you suggest (other than big donations to the Allen Prize endowment, of course)?

LAA: Lack of investment in the publishing industry is probably the biggest gap we have right now. Publishing is not just printing. It’s investing in new writers, editing, and distribution — it’s very risky and expensive, but without a publishing industry writers have no option but to self-publish, with all the attendant ills. There are also other industries like theatre and film that could do with more support, and that would benefit writers as well. If I had a couple millions of dollars at my disposal I’d also start a transparent and consistent system of grants for writers, so that we don’t have to starve while we write.

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