Writing a lifetime: Barbara Jenkins

With her debut book Sic Transit Wagon, Trinidadian writer Barbara Jenkins shows it’s never too late to start a literary career.

Barbara Jenkins. Photograph by Arnaldo James

“If I had to describe my daily writing life,” Barbara Jenkins laughs, “I would call it chaotic.” She refuses to endorse the notion that an artist must be militant to create good work. Dismissing any attempts at desk-chaining or deadline-chasing, Jenkins holds forth spiritedly on where writing eases into her routine. “I have been myself for too long to be thought of as a writer,” she asserts, “to have ‘writer’ stamped on me with sole authority. I am a person who writes — who has written stories.”

Her almost accidental foray into fiction began in 2006, when a close friend invited Jenkins to form the third member of a women’s writing circle. After a long career as a teacher of secondary school geography and environmental studies, these casual, enthusiastic meet-ups afforded Jenkins a glimpse into an entirely new world — of fiction and phrase-making as discipline and delight. She had always been a voracious reader. “I’m not happy if I’m not reading,” Jenkins says. “It’s my parallel life.” Now her own writing emerged naturally, finding a foothold amid the range of authors and tomes she’d absorbed over the years.

The trio’s informal gatherings springboarded a crucial milestone: attendance at the 2008 Cropper Foundation writers’ workshop in Balandra, on Trinidad’s north-east coast. Here, for the first time, Jenkins glimpsed the full range of what the short story could be. And these Cropper discussions were not the stuff of well-meaning friendly chat over afternoon tea. Quite the opposite: they brought together some of the region’s finest budding talents in fiction and poetry, under the tutelage and guidance of writers Funso Aiyejina and Merle Hodge. The debates were vigorous, the feedback invaluable — and Jenkins knew with certainty that she wanted more.

Her next step was to sign up for the creative writing MFA degree programme at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies. Her instructors were the very same she’d encountered at the Cropper workshop, but the landscape had changed entirely. The MFA was no writing retreat. A rigorous approach to creating responsibly crafted work typified Jenkins’s experience in the programme — from which she graduated, with high commendation, in 2012. Was it strange, as a seasoned veteran of the domestic and professional wars, interfacing with a classroom of younger folk? Not at all, Jenkins reflects with pleasure. “Nobody blinked when they saw a seventy-year-old in the classroom amid these twenty- and thirty-something-year-olds.”

“Without Professor Aiyejina . . . I wouldn’t have a book,” Jenkins says baldly, as she describes the sometimes ruthless, always illuminating critical sessions held among the programme’s staff and students. With a calmness that would madden fellow postgraduate students envious of her CV, Jenkins is clear that the particulars of rank and commendation barely occupied her thoughts as an MFA candidate. “I wanted to be in a place,” she explains, “where people would read and respond critically to my work. I got that, and so much more, in the UWI programme.”
And Aiyejina’s assessment of Jenkins work is unstinting. “She comes to fiction with a lifetime of experience, both as a colonial and as a postcolonial citizen, behind her,” he says.

“She demonstrates a deep knowledge of humanity, and a keen sense of observation . . . above all, her vision is supremely humanistic.”

As partial requirement for graduation, Jenkins completed a short fiction manuscript. She sent this to Peepal Tree Press, a UK-based publisher she respects for the consistently fine selections of Caribbean writing they have produced for twenty-five years. The response? Jenkins’s debut book of short fiction, Sic Transit Wagon, will be published by Peepal Tree in their summer 2013 catalogue, and launched at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain at the end of April. The title story, first developed during her time at the Cropper workshop, is a tale of a car: one that the narrator loved, lived with, and then sold. It spans thirty years of fond memories and vehicle ownership, and in its own way encompasses the spirit of the entire collection: it is a series of heavily autobiographical reminiscences and life experience, couched and cradled in fiction.

“The writing in Sic Transit Wagon is so remarkably well formed for a first collection, as if Barbara had been writing all her life,” says Peepal Tree Press founder (and Jenkins’s editor) Jeremy Poynting. “It’s not just that there’s a lifetime’s mature, reflective experience in the stories, but an exactness of style, an achieved personal voice that is very accomplished.” He adds that Jenkins’s achievements are undoubtedly “a good advertisement” for UWI’s MFA degree. Jenkins adds good-naturedly that if her MFA participation encourages other “old folks” to try their hand, she’d be pleased indeed.

“Ghost Story”, winner of the 2011 Small Axe Literary Competition for fiction, is one of the pieces slated to appear in Sic Transit Wagon. It tells the tale of Ghost, an itinerant Trinidadian “piper” — or redistributor of fresh produce that isn’t his in the strictest sense of the word. When Ghost’s fortunes take a tumble for the worse, the friendly neighbourhood ladies whose trees he has been “minding” find that life without their favourite fruit entrepreneur tastes more sour than they expected. Jenkins’s prose evokes a natural portrait of the immediate world that seems effortlessly done. Each story in Sic Transit Wagon feels like a familiar conversation, a destination we’ve already been to, but couldn’t map ourselves with as much clarity or grace.

Jenkins has also won the Caribbean region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition consecutively in 2010 and 2011, as well as the 2010 New Writing Prize for Life Writing from Wasafiri, a magazine based in London. Life writing, Jenkins says, may come closest to describing her work. “Fantasies, science fiction . . . dystopia — these aren’t for me,” she declares. She seems content, instead, to let the telling of stories on paper emerge from the life she’s lived — her words finding purchase whenever the time comes to set them forth.