Make it new

If Trinidad’s literary landscape seems particularly fertile of late, it’s thanks to a bountiful crop of new fiction writers and poets telling unexpected stories and trying out unfamiliar voices. Photographer Mark Lyndersay captures portraits of eight emerging talents, while Nicholas Laughlin reflects on the cultural climate that may explain this profusion

Alake Pilgrim. Photograph by Mark LyndersayAndre Bagoo. Photograph by Mark LyndersayDanielle Boodoo-Fortuné and Shivanee Ramlochan. Photograph by Mark LyndersayRhoda Bharath and Barbara Jenkins. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySharon Millar. Photograph by Mark LyndersayVashti Bowlah. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

New writers don’t just sprout up overnight. Hence the adjective “emerging,” now in common use: it implies process and progress, and a gradual germination of subject, style, and voice. Each writer moves at her own pace. Some start early, others late, some finish a first novel barely out of school, others spend years perfecting their craft — there’s no standard “emergence” timetable.

So if and when an observer thinks he discerns a sudden surge of literary talent in a particular time and place, it may simply be a quirk of perspective. But it may also point to a real shift in circumstances, a coincidence of happy factors, a change in the cultural temperature that brings many budding talents into bloom all at once.

Something of the sort seemed to happen in Trinidad in the mid 1990s, a fertile moment across the artistic landscape. A generation’s worth of talented younger writers — such as Jennifer Rahim, Raymond Ramcharitar, Kevin Baldeosingh, Anu Lakhan, Lisa Allen-Agostini, Keith Jardim, B.C. Pires — began to make their voices heard in local journals and newspapers, readings and performances. Most of this cohort have gone on to publish books, many to win prizes, and also to influence a subsequent generation of literary talent.

And for the past three or four years, for whatever reason, stimulated by whatever catalyst in the real or figurative air, Trinidad’s literary landscape seems to be enjoying another season of efflorescence. It’s partly thanks to the hard work of institutions like the Cropper Foundation’s biennial writing workshop and the creative writing MFA programme at the University of the West Indies, which have helped find and foster new talent. And the NGC Bocas Lit Fest — Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, launched in 2011 — has a strong focus on emerging writers, including a carefully curated New Talent Showcase, in which promising authors yet to publish a debut book give solo readings. The festival also administers the annual Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize, an award supporting an emerging writer in completing a book-length work.

These and other initiatives have surely helped create a nourishing environment for new writing, but the real bounty is the writers themselves. They come from a range of backgrounds. Some have been writing since childhood or adolescence, others first followed other career paths. A majority are women, reflecting a real shift in Caribbean literature’s gender balance. They tell stories no one has heard before, or tackle familiar topics in unexpected ways. Their distinctive voices weave new patterns into our literary tapestry.

The eight writers whose portraits appear in the following pages are among the most exciting recent talents remaking Trinidad’s literature, but they aren’t the only ones. The rich and observant fictions of Alake Pilgrim, Sharon Millar, Vashti Bowlah, Rhoda Bharath, and Barbara Jenkins, and the provocative poetic voices of Andre Bagoo, Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, and Shivanee Ramlochan, are part of a lively literary conversation that also includes Kevin Hosein’s jaunty moral fables in his Littletown Secrets, Hugh Blanc’s bracing literary thriller Between Bodies Lie, Attillah Springer’s lyrical essays on culture and memory, a resurgent performance poetry scene, and more. They join the established contemporary voices of writers like Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw and James Christopher Aboud here at home, and a stellar array of others — Monique Roffey, Vahni Capildeo, Anthony Joseph, Amanda Smyth, Roger Robinson — in T&T’s literary diaspora.

Whatever the reason for this generous crop of talent, the effect on ordinary readers has been invigorating. If Trinidad seems like the literary capital of the Anglophone Caribbean these days, the writers in the following pages are part of the reason.

 

Alake Pilgrim

Fiction writer • Caribbean winner, Commonwealth Short Story Competition, 2004 and 2009 • Bocas Lit Fest New Talent Showcase, 2011

Uncle licks his knife under their backs, a gentle slide, jerks up with that same hand (the other holds them down). I hear the Krak! I see the blue-black ink flood down their flinching legs like oil on the stone jukking board . . .

— From “Blue Crabs”

Alake Pilgrim’s fiction delves into the psychological complications of family and community with lyrical dexterity. She finds a reader’s comfort in the warm earth tones of her living room at home in D’Abadie, a space with orange walls, wood panelling and furniture, and plush chairs. But when it’s time to work, she curls up on the floor, props her books and laptop on a low coffee table, and gets down to business.

 

Sharon Millar

Fiction writer • Bocas Lit Fest New Talent Showcase, 2012 • Small Axe Literary Competition fiction winner, 2012 • Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2013

These offshore islands rise out of the water, rugged and black with deep crevices and craggy promontories. Her father used to tell the story of building the house. Dynamite under the water to blow a hole in the hill, a false plateau appearing like a shelf, the hill buckled up behind it . . .

— From “The Whale House”

Sharon Millar’s calm, spare prose looks below the illusive surface of Caribbean life for uncomfortable truths about family, history, and memory. In her St Ann’s home, she skips between a writing table, a cozy library space, and a sun-drenched sofa on her porch — a space alive with light, chirping birds in the overhanging trees, and a sense of being immersed in nature. Here Millar reads and makes notes, a reminder of the simple wonders of creation that influence her writing.

 

Andre Bagoo

Poet and journalist • debut book, Trick Vessels, published 2012

Let the love, which is a flower, say:
“His love had no end.”’
Let the flower, which is the night, say:
“His love has no end.”

— From “The Night Grew Dark Around Us”

The title of Andre Bagoo’s debut book hints at his fascination with riddles, nuances, and hidden meanings. He’s often found at the National Library in Port of Spain reading and researching, but he also finds inspiration roaming the city and seeking out resonant locations. One of these is St Margaret’s Church and particularly its cemetery, near his home in Belmont, which offers the human narrative of this east Port of Spain neighbourhood.

 

Vashti Bowlah

Fiction writer • David Hough Literary Prize, The Caribbean Writer, 2009 • debut book, Under the Peepal Tree, forthcoming in April 2014

It was the talk of the small fishing village when the only doubles vendor in the area brought home a wife. Word quickly got around that she was hotter than the special blend of pepper sauce his customers couldn’t get enough of. Young and old wondered what had prompted his sudden change of status . . .

— From “Catch of the Day”

Drawing on folk tales and shared memory as much as the latest newspaper headlines, Vashti Bowlah’s delicately crafted stories often explore rural communities caught up in cycles of change. She drives along this lonely stretch of road in Carlsen Field every working day, and is constantly surprised by the many ways the morning light touches the road and the pond that borders it, a large farmer’s reservoir blanketed with lush green lilies. This space is one of those she references when she considers the affirming beauty of country life.

 

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné

Poet and visual artist • Small Axe Literary Competition poetry winner, 2012 • Bocas Lit Fest New Talent Showcase, 2013

I wear this chameleon around my neck
to keep myself from changing.
I go from fire to fire
with each new skin,
spin prophecy,
secrete visions . . .

— From “Chameleon Thoughts”

 

Shivanee Ramlochan

Poet, fiction writer, and critic • Bocas Lit Fest New Talent Showcase, 2013

Love,
I saw our daughter in the grocery store again.
This time, she’d discarded the old shoes,
because, finally,
her hooves are coming through . . .

— From “I See That Lilith Hath Been With Thee Again.”

The fiercely precise craft and emotional punch of their poems belie the gentle personalities of Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné and Shivanee Ramlochan. (The latter is also Caribbean Beat’s Bookshelf editor and a lead book reviewer for the Trinidad Guardian.) They met through their writing, at one of the Cropper Foundation’s influential writing workshops, and made their performance debut reading their work on the stage at Alice Yard. They chose the Woodbrook arts space for their portrait, a reminder of an experience that sparked a rewarding and ongoing friendship they both treasure.

 

Rhoda Bharath

Fiction writer • Bocas Lit Fest New Talent Showcase, 2012

Mr Grant had an affair. That’s how the story should start. Now some of you will focus on the word “affair”. Some of you will focus on the verb “had”. A few of the quantitative analysts will even say, “‘An affair’, so it was only one? That’s good, it means he’s not a serial cheater.” But I want you to focus on “Mr Grant” . . .

— From “The Right Word”

 

Barbara Jenkins

Fiction writer • Bocas Lit Fest New Talent Showcase, 2011 • Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize, 2013 • debut book, Sic Transit Wagon, published 2013

I never heard Pappy play the Hawaiian guitar, an experience they say caused big, hardback men to halt at the crunch of a hang-jack moment in an all-fours card game, jaded women to rise from the fumbling laps of drink-sotted men, and broken-nosed barmen to pause in their rinsing of glasses in basins of grey water . . .

— From “I Never Heard Pappy Play the Hawaiian Guitar”

In their fiction, Rhoda Bharath and Barbara Jenkins explore and expose the social and political contradictions of T&T present and past — Bharath with the bite and sting of good old-time kaiso, Jenkins with a dry wit and hard-earned wisdom. The two writers have a friendship that’s hallmarked by friendly banter and cross-generational jabs. In any discussion, Jenkins will lament things that Bharath was too young to know, while the younger writer accuses her colleague of forgetfulness. Sipping sorrel and ginger ale in Jenkins’s Diego Martin home, the pair relax before heading off for a late afternoon swim.