My novella, Musical Youth placed second for the inaugural Burt Award, announced at the 2014 Bocas Festival in Trinidad. Winner was Ad-Ziko Gegele of Jamaica and third placed was Colleen Smith-Dennis, also of Jamaica. Here’s a synopsis of Musical Youth. And – with thanks to the organizers and sponsors of the prize and of Bocase – here’s the excerpt I read during the panel that came before the announcement of winners.
When Zahara had first picked up the guitar, it had been bigger than her; like if she stood behind it, she could completely disappear. Holding it on her lap had been comical. And for the longest while her grandmother would drive her away if she saw her so much as reach for it.
“Leave that! It’s not a toy!”
But when she plucked it, it made sounds; and she couldn’t resist the pull of it; even if it meant licks.
It was in the room with all the things. Boxes of books. Feathers, standards, and head pieces from Carnivals past. A sewing machine and a basket full of scraps. She remembered sitting on the floor, the motor of the machine humming under her as her mom Cinderella’d a random piece of cloth into something beautiful. And in the corner was the Stella Harmony. Her mom didn’t play; at least she’d never heard her play. Her grandmother didn’t play; in fact didn’t even seem to like music. Though Granny Linda’s radio was her steady companion, as soon as it turned from the talk Zahara found boring to music, Granny Linda often turned the station, or turned the radio off altogether to go hoe another line in the backyard garden that was her pride and joy, and winner of more than one Home and Garden competition. Zahara had only ever heard either of them sing in church on Sundays, and Granny Linda no longer went to church.
She sent Zahara like clockwork though, and it was there in the shadow of the statue of the Madonna that Zahara got her first lesson. It was before Holy Communion class and while the other kids ran around and round the round church playing some hybrid of catch-a-man and freeze-a-man, she’d sat listening to Father Ellie strum something that didn’t sound like church music, there at the sanctuary for the Lady. She was out of sight, scrunched up behind the purple bougainvillea draping itself over the gazebo. She doesn’t know, to this day, how he knew she was there but when the music that made her feel kind of happy-sad stopped playing he called to her.
“You like jazz?” he asked.
She didn’t know what he meant, but it was rude not to answer an adult when spoken to and a Priest at that, so she found her tongue.
“I don’t know jazz,” she said, climbing to her feet.
He’d smiled then, looking kind of happy-sad himself.
“Now you do,” he said.
He patted the bench next to him and she sat and he placed the guitar, not as pretty as the Stella Harmony, in her lap. He placed her fingers under the spine, just so, placed her other hand atop the fat belly of the thing, guided her through the playing of her very first chord ever. It was a C, her fingers shaped like a claw, framing the thing.
She’d been surprised by the giggle that leaked out of her at the sound.
She made the C more times, not tiring of the game, even when the strings started cutting into her fingers, lines of red forming at the tips.
Father Ellie seemed pleased with her.
But then Ms. Adderly called them in for class. She found it hard to pay attention to the Beatitudes though, rubbing her fingers where the sting felt fresh until the red lines disappeared, remembering the music.
Father Ellie became her first guitar teacher, tutoring her every Thursday before Holy Communion class; and then after she’d passed through that Sacrament, meeting up with her every Thursday anyway, until just a couple of years ago when he’d been reassigned.
Before long she’d started fiddling around with the guitar at home, the one no one ever played. It was out of tune and didn’t have all the strings. She hadn’t then got the hang of tuning, but she’d saved up for strings from Mike’s music shop anyway and plucked and pinged, turning the keys, until it sounded kind of alright.
“Ent I tell you leave that thing,” her grandmother said when she finally caught her. She looked up from the floor, not even feeling guilty about being found out. “Granny, listen to this,” she said. Her Granny hated that word, Granny. She made her ‘I’m not a Granny’ face; Zahara couldn’t see how saying Granny Linda was better than saying just Granny but it made a difference to her grandmother. Normally she’d stammer an apology at the mild transgression but she was too excited. Immediately she started plucking out a song Father Ellie had told her was about heart break and defiance, accepting life as it was and not bemoaning what couldn’t be, regretting nothing. She didn’t quite know what he meant and she couldn’t quite play it right, it had a lot more chords than she knew, but she felt kind of proud of herself anyway. She’d worked really hard on it and in-between she could hear an echo of what he’d played. And she didn’t like being an echo of things substantial but in this she felt like she could make herself more solid, more real, more than just a weak not quite good enough clone. She couldn’t ever change who she was, what she looked like, or that her mother was gone; but with practice, she could get better at this, she felt a certain power in that. And so she played the song, and looked up at her grandmother, face open, hoping she’d hear that there was something more there too.
But Granny Linda had only stared at her once she’d stopped, her lips in a moue the girl didn’t know how to read. Then she’d grunted a “Hm” and left the room.
After that, Zahara took the guitar to her room and there it stayed, propped up in the space between her bed and dresser where she could reach for it before going to bed, on waking, every spare moment in between, to practice and practice and practice.
Granny Linda never asked her for it and when, when she got to high school, Father Ellie, just before he left, introduced her to Mr. Patrick, the music teacher and glee club director, who agreed to continue her lessons, Granny Linda didn’t object to that either.