‘The Pendulum Has Swinged’: Why We Trinidadian Writers Are Having Our Moment | Books

LLast week, Trinidadian writer Lisa Allen-Agostini’s novel, The Bread the Devil Knead, earned a coveted spot on the Women’s award shortlist. As a fellow writer from Trinidad, this is both exciting and surprising. These days, Trinidad is churning out world-class writers hand over fist. Allen-Agostini’s shortlisting comes on the heels of the announcement two weeks ago that Trinidadian writer Amanda Smyth was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the only woman on the shortlist and the first Caribbean writer to be chosen. Meanwhile, Celeste Mohammed has become the fifth woman (and the third Trinidadian) to win Trinidad’s regional OCM Bocas award.

Something has happened in Trinidad, in our small but dense greenhouse of the literary world. Perhaps it is the 12 years of the Bocas literary festival, or five waves of feminism, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that the Internet opens opportunities for those from developing countries, but in the last decade Trinidad has produced a large number of women writers highlighted. It’s a trend that everyone in Caribbean literary circles knows about. Myself, Smyth, Allen-Agostini, Mohammed and others are part of an “enlightened boom”, and most of this boom is female.. We are meeting on the global stage, at prestigious shortlists in North America and the UK. This great generational and gender change would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago.

What makes this surge in our female literary talent so exquisitely satisfying is that not long ago, in 2011, Trinidad’s most famous writer, the supernova VS Naipaul, scorned women writers. During an interview with the Royal Geographic Society, she said: “I read a piece of writing and in one or two paragraphs I know if she is from a woman or not. I think [it is] uneven for me.” She went on to say that this was due to women’s “narrow and sentimental world view”.

Today, I hope that Naipaul is turning in her grave, because the women of Trinidad are not only writing, but we are winning awards for it. Last year, Ingrid Persaud won the Costa Award for First Novel with Love After Love, while my novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2020. Prior to these awards, Vahni Capildeo, ( relative of Naipaul) took the Forward award in 2016 for Expatriation Measures. In 2017, Shivanee Ramlochan’s debut collection Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize. And in 2018, Claire Adam’s Golden Child won a host of awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Desmond Elliott Award.

Many more Trini writers are emerging as I write – readers can expect an avalanche. There’s Ayanna Lloyd Banwo (her novel When We Were Birds is currently on tour), Ira Mathur, Alake Pilgrim, Hadassah K Williams, Breanne Mc Ivor, Judy Raymond, Desiree Seebaran. It’s like someone turned on a faucet.

The OCM Bocas festival, launched in 2011, has been instrumental in this increase. Bocas not only showcases Caribbean writers but is also committed to nurturing talent through workshops and longer mentoring schemes. Bocas has given Trinidad’s fledgling writers a structure, something to lean on. It puts our emerging writers in contact with the established writers of the region. In short, it has given us all confidence.

Then there is the Trinity itself. I call it “the place”. Charismatic, polyglot, sexycool, riddled with corruption and discontent, cursed with colonial anti-LGBT laws, barely free of child marriage, a place where one in three women experience domestic violence, historically and racially divided along African and indians; it is a place to write. It is also a place to celebrate; we own the carnival, calypso, once an international film festival and today a top-tier literary festival. We are a multifaceted racial mix, and our writers reflect that: Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Africans, Indians, Europeans. Our current wave of talent does not reflect a single narrative. It is a place of fusion and globalization through colonization, immigration and recruitment. So it’s no surprise that Trinidad has spawned many famous writers: VS Naipaul, CLR James, Earl Lovelace, Sam Selvon, to name a few.

But the pendulum has swung. There has been a gender earthquake: the present and the future, in terms of literary production in Trinidad, is female.

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