The short story looks good – vibrant, inventive and surprising as a form capable of anything. I am well qualified to say this having recently read hundreds of them for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
I chaired a reading and discussion at the 2015 Bocas Literature Festival with the Caribbean regional winner, Kevin Jared Hosein, along with the two other Trinidadian shortlisted writers Darren Doyle and Toodesh Ramesar. The writers read extracts from their stories, talked about the genesis of the tales and touched on the context around them. The former regional and overall winner Sharon Millar joined the panel discussion and reading. Her presence added diversity, a sense of history and continuity. In bringing together a past winner with a current winner and shortlisted writers, the health and wealth in the creativity of the region was made emphatically clear.
The enthusiasm in the audience – it was a packed house – made the event seem pivotal to the festival ideal. Bocas is a celebration of writing as well as a platform for fostering new talent.
The Bocas Festival is smack in the centre of the city and has ties to schools and writing and performance competitions. The English of Trinidad is music to the ears, lilting and sonorous with a rise at the start of the sentence and a decline in tone towards the end. The writing is tied to this musical speech and everyone seems equipped to speak a vibrant story (if only I’d recorded them all!). One key and recurring element of the fiction is the way both country and city narratives allied themselves to the underdog, the underprivileged and power-starved. Listening to the readers created the impression of a serious dialogue with the politics of fair play and against political malfeasance. That makes it sound humourless, which is far from the truth. The writers demonstrated an aptitude for satire and the comic that existed cheek by jowl with the tragic.
I was also lucky to meet the Africa regional winner, Lesley Nneka Arimah, at another event in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. The Loft Literary Center, part of the aptly named venue Open Book, a converted factory located a stone’s throw from the Mississippi, could not have been better suited to writers and readers. The Loft’s programme director Bao Phi went out of his way to make everyone feel welcome. A small audience, no less enthused than if we were in the tropics on a hot day, asked probing questions and teased interesting answers out of Lesley, the very composed and erudite, not to mention deserving, winner.
Minneapolis belies the usual expectations about the Midwest – of uniformity of culture and ethnicity. The city has taken in a number of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan and there is also a strong West African community, made up principally of Nigerians and Ghanaians. As a result, a welcome diversity greets the visitor. In addition to the usual questions about the source of the story, Lesley’s reading saw the knowledgeable audience dig deep into the cultural specificities of the fiction, making for an engaging evening of literature aligned with life.
‘Post-colonial writing’ may be a misnomer for regions steeped in particular experience and obsessions. ‘Global writing’ (from partial viewpoints invested in idiosyncratic Google coordinates) may best fit the stunning diversity of the topics and concerns of the writers. But who cares about a label given the richness of the stories, all readable, stylistically inventive and memorable? Luckily for readers this Short Story Prize continues to uncover new talent. Write on!
Fred D’Aguiar was born in London of Guyanese parents and grew up in Guyana. His twelve books include novels, poems and plays. His latest novel, inspired by events at Jonestown, Guyana, is Children of Paradise (2014). Fred teaches at Virginia Tech in the United States. Twitter: @VTPOET