Making the list

by Nicholas Laughlin on February 11, 2011

Two stacks of books next to each other

Photograph by Horia Varlan, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

It’s shortlist time — for at least a couple of literary awards.

Yesterday the Warwick Prize for Writing announced its 2011 shortlist; Derek Walcott’s White Egrets has advanced to the final six (after winning the T.S. Eliot Prize a couple weeks back). The Warwick Prize is a biennial cross-genre award, open to writing in any form, on a theme which changes with each cycle. This time around, the theme is colour.

Also announced yesterday: the regional shortlists for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. For purposes of the award, the fifty-odd nations of the Commonwealth are divided into four regions: Africa, Canada and the Caribbean, South Asia and Europe, and South East Asia and the Pacific. Each region has its own panel of judges, who name regional shortlists for best book and best first book. The regional winners (to be announced on 3 March) then vie for the overall prizes in the two categories.

In Caribbean literary circles, at least in recent years, the CWP’s regional shortlist announcements have often triggered a flurry of discussion and concern about the scarcity of Caribbean books making the semi-final cut. In 2010, only one Caribbean book made it onto the Canada/Caribbean best book/best first book shortlists (out of twelve titles total). In 2009 — when your Antilles blogger was a regional CWP judge — it was one out of thirteen. This year, the twelve shortlisted books from our region are all Canadian:

Canada and Caribbean Best Book

The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson (Canada)
Room by Emma Donahue (Canada)
The Master of Happy Endings by Jack Hodgins (Canada)
In the Fabled East by Adam Lewis Schroeder (Canada)
The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter (Canada)
Mr Shakespeare’s Bastard by Richard B. Wright (Canada)

Canada and Caribbean Best First Book

Bird Eat Bird by Katrina Best (Canada)
Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro (Canada)
Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack (Canada)
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Canada)
The Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Canada)
Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Canada)

(Perhaps Caribbean readers can take some consolation from the presence of Andrea Levy’s novel The Long Song on the South Asia/Europe shortlist.)

As a Caribbean reader and writer, I’m disappointed that no Caribbean books are in the running for the 2011 CWP. But at the same time I’m disinclined to second-guess the judges’ decisions. If the 2009 round was anything to go by, they read something like a hundred books of fiction in the space of four months, and agonised over the shortlisting process. And it’s worth remembering the facts of demographics: Canada has a population more than five times the size of the Commonwealth Caribbean’s, and Canadian writers publish many more works of fiction each year than do Caribbean writers. (In the middle of the 2009 CWP judging period, I scribbled some thoughts about this.)

Around the time of last year’s CWP shortlist announcement, I participated in a sort of debate on the Caribbean “shortfall” which started when a writer friend made a comment on Facebook. Eleven people weighed in, most of them writers (but because the exchange happened in Facebook’s semi-private zone, I won’t mention names or quote anyone, except myself). There was a rough consensus that the CWP judging system — specifically, the way eligible books are sorted into regions, usually dominated by one or two big countries — systematically disadvantages writers from parts of the world like the Caribbean. The discussion thread covered demographics, the possibility of cultural bias, and the motives of the judges — and of course several people named the Caribbean books they felt should have been shortlisted for the 2010 prize, but weren’t.

I ended my own contribution to the debate with this point:

Isn’t it obvious we need a very well-funded and well-managed set of Anglophone Caribbean literary prizes with substantial cash awards? Anybody with US$5 million to donate to the cause, message me directly and we’ll start setting it up.

Whereupon my writer friend who started the thread promised to buy a lotto ticket.

I assume he didn’t win the jackpot, but the remarkable good news is that, a year later, there are not one but two new Caribbean literary prizes that will be awarded for the first time in 2011. The OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, announced last November, is an annual award for books of poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction by Caribbean writers, with prize money of US$10,000. It is organised by the Bocas Lit Fest, sponsored by One Caribbean Media, and the inaugural winner will be announced at the end of April. (Your Antilles blogger is a member of the organising committee.)

Meanwhile, the Guyana Prize for Literature — established in 1987 to recognise outstanding books by Guyanese writers, and funded by the government of Guyana — has announced a new biennial Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award. It is open to writers from across the region, with a US$5,000 prize for the winners in three categories: fiction, poetry, and drama. (More information here.) The 2011 entry deadline is 28 February, and winners will be announced in May.

These two new awards don’t replace the CWP, which offers a different kind of recognition. Many Caribbean writers are actually eligible for numerous awards of different sorts and sizes and degrees of fame, depending on where they live or publish — and quite often win them. But there is surely immense potential value in literary awards that focus on the particular diversity of Caribbean writing — organised, funded, and judged by Caribbean people with Caribbean sensibilities, with the immediate aim of promoting Caribbean books, and as rigorous a concern for aesthetic merit as any literary awards anywhere in the world.

I believe these new awards are important acts of self-determination and self-confidence. Of course, it is the quality of the winning books in the years to come that will determine the awards’ credibility and their real value (prize money aside). I’m eagerly looking forward to the announcement of the first shortlists and winners, and to the fresh debates they will provoke.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Yasmin Morais March 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I totally agree with your point that there is “value in literary awards that focus on the particular diversity of Caribbean writing – organised, funded, and judged by Caribbean people with Caribbean sensibilities, with the immediate aim of promoting Caribbean books, and as rigorous a concern for aesthetic merit as any literary awards anywhere in the world”. This is key – the confidence to believe that we can do it and for corporate Caribbean to step up to the plate with the funding. The OCM Bocas and Guyana Prize are trailblazers. Hopefully, others will follow.

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