Ready, set, read

In the quest to encourage reading habits in the Caribbean, books aimed at young adults have been in short supply. As Erline Andrews finds out, the new Burt Award for Caribbean Literature aims to change that

A-dZiko Simba Gegele, winner of the 2014 Burt Award. Photograph by Marlon James

The novel All Over Again, by Jamaican author A-dziko Simba Gegele, is a lively boyhood saga set in Jamaica, and written with a lyricism and insight that should delight teenage readers across the Caribbean. And a new award which the book won recently will give thousands the chance to experience it — while rewarding both the author and her publisher.

Launched in 2013 and awarded for the first time in April 2014, the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature for young adults is a groundbreaking initiative to support writers and publishers of books for readers aged twelve to eighteen — a crucial age range, when lifetime reading habits are formed. Sponsored by the Canadian philanthropist William “Bill” Burt, and administered by the Canadian charity CODE in partnership with Trinidad and Tobago’s Bocas Lit Fest, the award has the simple goal of encouraging the writing of novels that young people would consider “page-turners” (as Burt puts it), and which are about characters from their own cultures. It goes to published or unpublished books, and includes cash awards for the first-, second-, and third-place authors, plus guaranteed publication and distribution of 2,500 copies of the winning books.

It’s a project which has been international from the start. The first Burt Awards were established in four east and west African countries. The idea came when CODE — which promotes literacy in developing societies by helping produce books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as establishing libraries, and training teachers — invited Burt on a tour to highlight its work in Ethiopia. Burt was in one of CODE’s libraries when he picked up a book that was so well-used, the pages were “grey and fuzzy.” “It made me think that there’s a need for fiction here,” he says, explaining that borrowing novels from the library as a child “made me literate.”

The Burt Award for African Literature — open to authors from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Ghana — has led to the publication of more than one hundred thousand copies of around thirty-five titles in the past five years. Some of them — like The Twelfth Heart, by Ghanaian Elizabeth-Irene Baitie — even became bestsellers.

Next followed the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literature, offered for the first time in 2013 to authors from indigenous communities in Canada. More than 7,500 copies of the first three winning titles were distributed to schools, libraries, and community centres throughout that country — “All books that would not have been published otherwise,” says CODE executive director Scott Walter.

Extending the award to the Caribbean, where CODE has other projects, was a “natural step,” explains Walter. “It’s no secret that the Caribbean has produced some of the best and most acclaimed writers on the international stage,” he says. “The submissions we received for the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature were representative of this great talent.”

 

To make it happen, CODE needed a partner on the ground in the Caribbean. That turned out to be the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the annual literary festival based in Port of Spain, which began in 2011. Marina Salandy-Brown, director of the festival, says she welcomed an award for a form of writing that doesn’t get enough attention in the Caribbean. Bocas helped administer the award and also collaborated with CODE to hold free workshops on young adult writing in Trindad, Jamaica, and Guyana.

“What makes the award special is not that it gives a very generous financial reward to a good and deserving, often under-paid writer,” says Salandy-Brown, “but that it provides a hitherto quite unbelievable opportunity to market and distribute three new books per year throughout the region. The Caribbean Sea is a great divide, so getting books around the different islands is not easy. The Burt Award is like a bridge between us.”

The winners were announced at a ceremony during the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in April. Antiguan Joanne Hillhouse’s manuscript Musical Youth won second place, and Jamaican Colleen Smith-Dennis’s Inner City Girl came third. William Burt himself was there to present the three awards. “Personal generosity such as Bill Burt’s is very hard to find in this region,” says Salandy-Brown. “It was a particular pleasure for all of us to be able to show him and his wife some T&T hospitality.”

All Over Again touched the jury with its humour, and sometimes pathos,” says Scott Walter, who was also on hand for the award ceremony. “They were impressed by the spirited style and skilful manipulation of language.” The novel, as well as the second- and third-place books, will be distributed across the Caribbean later this year. The Jamaica Library Service plans to use the books in the national reading competition.

Inspired by her now-adult son, Gegele began writing All Over Again fifteen years ago as a short story. After she’d finished a collection of short fiction, she approached Jamaican publisher Tanya Batson-Savage, who advised her to turn a few of the stories into a novel. Gegele, a poet and playwright, said she’d never really seen herself as novelist. Now she’s working on a follow-up to All Over Again, as well as an adult novel.

“The significance of an award like this is validation,” she says. “It’s saying, OK, you’re doing something, and we get it, and we like it, and it’s worthwhile, and it has a purpose.” And besides being a confidence booster, the award benefits the author’s craft in practical ways. Gegele’s first-place prize included CAD$10,000.

“The award is substantial — it’s something you can do something with,” she says. “I can use it to go to workshops. I can use it to do publishing. I can use it to set up my website. I can use it to take me to a different level.”

Gegele expects the Burt Award to bring new writers out of the woodwork. “I think it’s going to encourage many people who’ve got the idea that they want to write a novel, have maybe even got a novel that they’ve put down, maybe they’ve had rejections and feel deflated . . . I’m sure it will encourage them to dust them off, maybe do some work on them, and submit them.”

Second-place winner Joanne Hillhouse had previously written an adult novel and a children’s book, and decided to take up “the creative challenge” of writing a young adult novel to submit for the Burt Award. The cash and prestige aren’t what she values most about the prize, she says. “I love to see people engaged in what I write. I’m looking forward to seeing how people respond to it. Especially young readers.”

The guarantee of publication and distribution, she says, “means there’s a greater chance of penetration across the Caribbean, and a greater chance of getting this book and the other books that have made it into the top three into the hands of young readers.”

“That is exciting to me,” Hillhouse says.