Burt’s Best – 2016 Edition

The Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean literature holds a special place in my heart, and in my writing and publishing journey. I submitted a rough (very rough) manuscript to it in 2013 and, when the winners were announced at Bocas in 2014, was first runner-up behind A-dZiko Gegele’s wonderful All over Again. My manuscript, after a rigorous and tight (given the set publishing timeline) editing process, was published, and this is one of the beauties of the prize (that it has Caribbean publishers bid to publish the winning books if they don’t already have a publisher). Around the time Caribbean Reads, the publisher I selected, was rolling out the book,
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, late 2014, I was commissioned by CODE, sponsors of the Burt Award, to run a workshop on writing teen/young adult fiction – these workshops were another developmental aspect of their work here in the Caribbean. If you’re keeping track, this prize is discovering new talent and new material (especially if you consider that in my year, mine was the only unpublished manuscript among the top three while in the two years since unpublished manuscripts have dominated the top three), investing in Caribbean publishing and in writer development – thereby  helping build or bolster the infrastructure for future writing and publishing out of the region. It is also recruiting and using a mix of regional and extra-regional expertise in evaluating the submitted works – I know because I was part of such a panel in the 2014-2015. And it was hard but it was also good – debating the merits of the submissions and then the ordering of the top three: Children of the Spider,
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, and Dancing in the Rain. I now have those three books – all of which were unpublished manuscripts when I knew them – in my hands. Whatever your criticisms of Bocas and I’ve read some of them – hell, I’ve had some of my own – its introduction of the Burt Award (which already existed in Africa and among indigenous communities in Canada) to the Caribbean, is a valuable contribution: new writing, stronger publishing platforms, deeper evaluative and critiquing skills, new material for an under-served market, new books. And I look forward to the new books coming out of the Award’s 2016 cycle and to more writers, even if they’ve been disappointed in the past, trying again – I’ve seen where persistence pays. I hope more writers come forward, I hope the small and unique and unheard voices get heard, I hope this Award is with us for awhile, and I hope Caribbean youth embrace these books. They are, everyone I’ve read so far, good and engaging books with appeal to teen/young adult and adult readers alike. And now we can look forward to three more with this announcement from the people at Bocas (who through this prize and others continue to stimulate and reward new additions to the Caribbean literary canon):


Debut novelist Tamika Gibson wins
CODE’s 2016 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature

Port of Spain, 29 April 2016 — CODE announced the winners of its third annual Burt
Award for Caribbean Literature, which recognizes outstanding writing for young
adults by Caribbean authors, at the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Port-of-Spain,
Trinidad and Tobago.

Tamika Gibson received the first prize of$10,000 CAD for her first novel, De First
Family. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Ms. Gibson now lives in the US Virgin Islands.
Florenz Webbe Maxwell of Bermuda won the second prize of $7000 CAD for Girlcott,
and Danielle Y.C. McClean of Trinidad and Tobago, now based in Tennessee, took
home the $5000 CAD third prize for The Protector’s Pledge.

The winners were selected by a jury administered by The Bocas Lit Fest and made up
of writers, literacy experts and academics from the Caribbean and Canada.
De First Family and Girlcott are unpublished manuscripts, and The Protector’s Pledge
was self-published. CODE will facilitate the publication of all three novels by
connecting the authors with Caribbean publishers, and will also purchase up to 6000
copies of the winning titles and donate them to schools, libraries and community
organizations across the region.

“It is a great thrill to discover and recognize such fine literature for youth,” said CODE
Executive Director Scott Walter. “Our job now is to ensure the novels end up in the
hands of young readers throughout the Caribbean. High quality, culturally relevant
books have long been known to help encourage the love and habit of reading, and
these winning titles are sure to find an eager audience.”

“We are all winners – readers, writers, society, the book industry,” says Marina
Salandy-Brown, founder and director of the Bocas Lit Fest, “our partnership with
CODE is a high impact one, and it is now up to us in the region to do our part in
nurturing the intelligent and passionate readers of the future, using these wonderful
literary tools that have been put at our disposal. We are very grateful to CODE.”

The 2016 shortlist also included: The Demise of the Queen’s College Adventure Club
by 2015 first-place winner Imam Baksh; The Truth Is by 2015 third-place winner Lynn
Joseph, Trinidad & Tobago; and Barberry Hill by Carol Mitchell.
The Burt Award for Caribbean Literature was established by CODE—a Canadian
charitable organization that has been advancing literacy and learning for 55
years—in collaboration with the Literary Prizes Foundation. CODE’s Burt Award is a
global readership initiative that includes programs in the Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya,
Tanzania, and Canada.

To date, CODE has distributed 15,000 award-winning books to readers in eleven
Caribbean countries. It further supports local writing and publishing through
workshops for writers and editors and through reading promotion initiatives, such as
sponsoring events that connect winning authors directly with young readers.


Both Sides

I should have posted this already but better late than never, I suppose. The delay is not a reflection of anything but not enough hours in the day. Something this Burt Award judging process reminded me of. I’ve judged writing contests, locally, before, but it was my first experience judging a book prize, and a regional one at that. I would learn that reading that many books on a schedule can have even a book lover whimpering, with no intended aspersions to the books themselves, please, no more. Interestingly, as the process narrows to the top contenders, you get a shot of adrenaline again as you spar with the other judges making a case for this choice over that until you arrive at as close to consensus as you can get with something as subjective as art. I’ve been on both sides of this process now and have intimate knowledge of how vulnerable you feel when you leap into this kind of thing, hoping they’ll pick you, steeling yourself for the probability that they won’t; and, as well, the grave responsibility you feel to give each writer a fair reading, to consider and re-consider. Hopeful on both sides of being surprised.

I remember receiving word a year ago around this time that my unpublished manuscript Musical Youth had been selected for the Burt short list; I remember it was maybe 3 in the morning and I called perhaps the only friend I can call at 3 in the morning without there being a life or death emergency. And the next time we fight, and we will, I have to remember that not only didn’t she immediately hang up the phone on me but she was right there with me, as awake as I was at the news. Musical Youth has been good to me and good for me as a writer, and I continued to do all I can to make sure it fulfills its potential as a book by reaching as many readers as it can. Books are meant to be read, right?
And these second set of Burt winners deserve an audience as well. In the end, I think all four judges agree on that. What’s more I think the core target audience, teens and young adults of the Caribbean, will enjoy the adventures these books take them on both in the moment, and later, on reflection. The top three haven’t been announced as yet (I know something you don’t know LOL) but you’ll see what I mean when they are and when, ultimately, you have the opportunity to read them. Meantime, big up to all who dared, big up to those on the short list, big up to the finalists and ultimate winners. To my fellow judges, it’s been real…seriously.
On the list are:
– Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh, Guyana (manuscript to be published)
– Putting Up a Resistance by Michael Cozier, Trinidad and Tobago (self-published book)
– Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago (manuscript to be published)
– Prayer to the Motivator by Kamau Mahakoe, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)
– The Dolphin Catchers by Diana McCaulay, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)
For more, go here.

And given that it’s awards season, I’ll also mention that the Hollick Arvon long list has been announced, and the Bocas long and short list – special congratulations to Dorbrene O’Marde who’s Short Shirt biography Nobody Go Run Me made the long list of the latter. And let’s not forget the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, with four Caribbean writers claiming a spot.
All but one of these will be announced during the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad. Wishing all contenders success.

And since we’re talking prizes, I should mention that I have already been announced as one of the winners of the Caribbean Writer’s Flash Fiction Prize; and on April 11th, I will be announcing, during the awards ceremony at the Best of Books, the winner takes all winner of the Wadadli Pen 2015 challenge which I coordinate.

Gratitude for both – the opportunity to reap and to plant, the opportunity to see things from both sides. And to all who dare to leap, including myself, continue as Zora Neale Hurston’s mother said to her children to “’jump at the sun. We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.’”

The Burt Blog – Memories to Keep and a Trophy

I don’t think I’ve caught my breath from Bocas as yet. Since returning from Trinidad, I’ve caught some zzzz’s then began packing right away for New York (and the PEN World Voices Festival) where I’ll be part of the Literary Safari. I’m not quite sure what to expect but if the Scotland and Trinidad trip have taught me anything these past few weeks it’s that things will happen as they will, adjust and roll with it. So, rolling, rolling, rolling.

The last few days I rolled into Bocas, literally. Arrived on Thursday, went straight from the airport to the launch event for Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean – the first publication by Peekash (a sub-imprint, I guess, of US based Akashic and UK based Peepal Tree). As a  contributor to the collection, I really just wanted to be there. I got there late but just in time to catch readings by Sharon Millar and Barbara Jenkins, authors of two of my favourite pieces from the collection. The place was packed and the readings well received. Got to meet some of the folks I’ve only ever really met via social media – like K. Jared Hosein (whose Littletown Secrets I purchased later in the festival), Millar, Jenkins, and likely others. Oh, and I ran into Emma from the Commonwealth whom I’d only just met the week before when she put my Scotland trip together; it was like running into an old friend.

The following day was my morning reading and panel discussion with other finalists for the Burt Award. I read this excerpt from Musical Youth and loved being able to kick back and listen to readings by Ad-Ziko Gegele (of Nigeria, Jamaica…and, my add after my conversation with her, a little bit of Montserrat thrown in) and Colleen Smith-Dennis, also of Jamaica. I found both their readings very engaging, but (even more so during the lively and skilful reading of an excerpt from Ad-Ziko’s by a Trini youth during the awards ceremony) was particularly drawn in by Gegele’s narrative style and especially her adept use of the second voice. Not surprisingly, she claimed the main prize later that evening at our fancy duds gala. I took second and Smith-Dennis took third. I say we’re all winners…and we kind of are as one of the outcomes of making the top three is all of our books will shortly be available across the Caribbean. It was interesting reading the synopsis of my own Musical Youth in the programme, and not just because I suck at so tell me what your book’s about type questions but because reading the synopsis I got that whoever wrote it got it, probably more even than I did when I wrote it. As I explained during the panel, while writing it, I kind of slipped into a zone, where it was almost like I was chasing the story as it sprinted to the finish. I’ve never approached another project in that way; deciding to enter a contest with less than two weeks toward the deadline and finding that the story was there all along just waiting to be written. I had to pause for work, real life, story driven research, but the characters were always there waiting when I came back, every spare minute, to the keyboard. A part of me wishes I’d had more time to edit and all that stuff…as I wrote before, the only reader this manuscript had was my 15 year old niece. But maybe all of that is as it was meant to be. Bottom line, as I said in the panel, I approached it as I approach all writing projects from the inside-out, not the outside-in, with a commitment to being true to the characters’ experience. That’s something that’s consistent whatever the intended market. These Burt books though are intended for the teen/young adult market so now that it’s all said and done, it’ll be good to see how young people engage with them. I do believe as I said in the panel that if you give young people something they want to read, they will. Reading should first be fun. Hopefully they’ll find these books to be fun. I certainly had fun writing, in my case, Musical Youth.

I didn’t get to stay for much else at my first Bocas (of which my biggest regret is probably the Lovelace film A Writer in His Place which ran con-current with my panel), as I was scheduled to leave the following morning ahead of the PEN World Voices Festival. I had run ins with old mentors Carolyn Cooper and Mervyn Morris, and drive bys with a few other new and familiar faces, like Earl Lovelace and Velma Pollard whom I met for the first time last year in Guadeloupe, Bernadine Evaristo who I met in Antigua while she was still researching her now acclaimed book Mr. Loverman, Kei Miller who had just fed me in Scotland and had since been as far as Iraq and yet here he was reading from his much anticipated forthcoming poetry collection and signing my copy of his Writing Down the Vision, non fiction winner of the Bocas prize (I’d heard him read from it at Aye Write! And had to have it) . Plus there were the new people that I met and hopefully will remember the next time we meet again – yeah, I had one of those awkward do you remember me encounters, and I didn’t (I suck).

In the end, I felt somewhat melancholy as I taxied to the airport at that time of early morning when there’s not much else on the road and not much else to think about but the journey you’re on, the one you’re taking literally and the bigger journey, of life, of which it is a part. I felt strangely peaceful, peaceful, and thankful (my Burt trophy heavy in my Bocas bag, the first award of its kind for this bookworm-cum-writer from Ottos, Antigua who’s been paying and paying her dues). So yeah, thankful for this moment – I don’t suck. I am sleepy though. That’s the thing all of this journeying will do to you, totally tilt you off kilter, time wise. But it’s a small thing really, when you consider the reward, and I’m not just talking about the trophy, and all it represents, I’m talking about the nerves and the awkwardness and the connections and the poetry and the stories and the engagements and the travels and the conversations and the new places and faces, and the familiar places and faces, all of that and so many other memories to keep.



Bocas 5

*click image to see more pics.

Meantime, Plus, here are some links related to the prize and Bocas. Enjoy.