She’s not George Lamming, either, but Aprille Thomas won the Kamau Brathwaite Award for her poetry at NIFCA 2014.
Two of my most pleasant discoveries during the 2012 National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA) were Mark Ramsay and Aprille Thomas. I heard them both read for the first time at the Goddard Enterprises NIFCA Literary Arts Gala held that year.
Mark, the recipient of a 2012 Irving Burgie Award for his writing, read from his bronze-medal-winning short story “Stilled Life,” which contained the kind of character-driven tension that fires first-rate fiction. It could have been leaner and less precious in spots, but he should learn greater writerly restraint as he matures. He has since won a Colly award (shortlisted at 3rd place in 2013 for his unpublished collection The Generation with the World in Our Mouths) and has work in the latest issue of Bim: Arts for the 21st Century (volume 7, 2014)—a piece called “Instructions for Deboning a Fish.”
Aprille read her gold-winning entry, “Tribute to my Grandparents.” Perhaps a little too casual in her own delivery, the performed excerpt of her bronze-medal-winning play Of Rum, Truth and Forgiveness was more representative of her emotional strengths as a storyteller. She repeated her gold win at the 2013 NIFCA, earning a Prime Minister’s Scholarship that year. This year, 2014, she won the Kamau Brathwaite Award for Literary Excellence in Poetry for “For Martin Carter.”
Technician though I’ve been called, and meticulous, a work—whether I’m reading it, writing it or editing it—lives or dies for me based on how it makes me feel. I welcome the emotional wallop. In life as in literature, we think with our hearts as much as with our heads, and to be wise in both is like seeing with a third eye.
A place in literature
In his reply to my congratulatory email, Mark wrote: “I look forward to maintaining this connection, the influence and support of established writers means so much to me. I think it’s one of the only ways to really move forward in this craft.”
True enough. Whether brief or a bear hug, the early embrace of writers like Mark Abley, George Elliott Clarke, Yann Martel, Sonja Skarstedt, Brian Busby, and H Nigel Thomas certainly influenced how I approached my vocation. But I’d caution Mark not to follow his fine sentiments to the letter.
I am not, obviously, George Lamming. I read Lamming’s first two novels out of my father’s library, have interviewed the man, and learned from his style. But, great as he may be, I would not, do not, want to write like him and believe my job is to carry the literature beyond his pages…I’m tempted to add “if I can,” but I really don’t see that as a choice, either—not for me, nor for Aprille or Mark.
There are many of our writers who feel this way but are hesitant to say so. There’s really no need to be shy. As ArtsEtc’s annual Independence Reading Lists make plain, Barbados’ third generation of authors—since the days of Frank Collymore, William S. Arthur and Clennell Wickham; then followed by Geoffrey Drayton, Lamming, Brathwaite, and Austin “Tom” Clarke—have been active. Younger writers like Mark and Aprille will, one hopes, form part of a fourth dynamic generation.
What will have to be earned by all of us as artists is our place in the literature, and the international and academic honours that often come along with it. When asked if his 2010 Career Grand Slam at age 24 put him beside rival Roger Federer in greatness, Rafael Nadal was right to answer, “Talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid, because [his many] titles say he’s much better than me.” But I’ve often felt Barbadian writers have been hindered by an unhealthy nostalgia, a hobbling reverence for the past; as if to mention Colly, Kamau, George, and Tom (with a self-satisfied sigh) is enough to sum up our literature.
(New) Barbadian criticism?
Writing, or any venture worthy of a body’s dedicated time, is not about being the best you can be at what someone else does: it’s about being the best there is at what you do. A big part of the job is to be as original as possible or, democratically speaking, first among equals. Bajan writers sometimes forget this, and make apologies for the attempt, the effort, the effrontery. As a result, we often don’t promote ourselves in ways that are not at first self-deprecating, and we’re even slower to praise fellow writers justifiably (if we’re even reading them).
Our own critics, the few legitimate ones there are, are equally to blame. There is tremendous material being produced by our serious writers, in all genres. Whether critics accept it or not, evolving artistic tastes and the masses will eventually sort out what’s worth canonizing. The real problem is that our critics can be stubborn to see and appreciate what’s before them for what it is, such as emergent sub-genres of the literature. Our critics tend to look for comforting, familiar tropes (e.g., the immigrant’s story, the plantation story, the bygone-era story) instead of welcoming the challenge of new concerns and unsettling directions. There are more Bajan writers, those from abroad who make Barbados their home and those currently living over and away, concerned with writing back to their country: whose priority is not to justify the ways of Bajans to others, be they European or African, rather to justify the ways of Bajans to Bajans and the diaspora.
This shift in how we approach our literature and culture may require a new generation of fearless, independent critics as well as poets and prose writers and dramatists. The role of the academic critic is, broadly (or should that be narrowly?), to find the relations that exist between texts; the role of the journalistic reviewer is to connect texts with readers. It may be, then, that the role of the independent scholar, potentially more capable and able today because of his or her social media savvy, is to discover the links both academic and reviewer happen to miss in their enquiries.