Guyanese poet Mark McWatt has scored a literary double-victory. His poetry collection, Journey to Le Repentir copped the Best Book of Poetry prize for both the 2010 Guyana Prize for Literature Award and the inaugural Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award.
The Guyana Prize for Literature is a local prize awarded to nationals of Guyana. It was established in 1987. Its counterpart, the Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award, launched in 2010, is open to Caribbean writers across the region, including the Netherland Antilles, and offers a US$5,000 prize to the winner in each of the three categories; fiction, poetry, and drama. The Caribbean Award is adjudicated by a separate jury from that for the Guyana Prize for Literature.
Mark McWatt’s Journey to Le Repentir was published by the UK-based Peepal Tree Press, the leading publisher of books by Caribbean writers. In capturing the poetry prize for the Caribbean award, McWatt triumphed over Christian Campbell, (Running the Dusk; Peepal Tree Press, 2010), Ishion Hutchinson, (Far District; Peepal Tree Press, 2010), Jennifer Rahim (Approaching Sabbaths; Peepal Tree Press, 2009), John Agard (Clever Backbone Bloodaxe Books, 2009) and Vahni Capildeo, (Undraining Sea; Egg Box Publishing, 2009). For the local award McWatt beat Brian Chan (The Gift of Screws; Peepal Tree Press 2008), Stanley Greaves (The Poems Man, Peepal Tree Press, 2009), Maggie Harris (After a visit to the Botanical Garden; Cane Arrow Press, 2010), Sasenarine Persaud (In a Boston Night; T S A R Publications, 2008) and Berkeley Semple (The Central Station).
McWatt is the head of the English Department at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados and the co-editor of the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Interiors and The Language of Eldorado, and a collection of short stories, Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement, which won the 2006 Commonwealth Prize.
In the fiction category Peepal Tree writers once again predominated. The Caribbean award for ‘Best Book of Fiction’ went to Haitian-Canadian author Myriam Chancy for her novel The Loneliness of Angels (Peepal Tree Press, 2010). She placed ahead of her colleagues Diana Mcaulay (Dog Heart; Peepal Tree Press, 2010) and Patricia Powell (The Fullness of Everything; Peepal Tree Press, 2009), as well as Karen Lord (Redemption in Indigo; Small Beer Press, 2010), and Amanda Smyth (Black Rock; Serpent’s Tail, 2009).
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised there and in Canada, Chancy’s first novel Spirit of Haiti (Mango Publications, 2003) was shortlisted for the Best First Book, Canada/Caribbean region category of the Commonwealth Prize in 2004. The Loneliness of Angels was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize in Caribbean Literature and shortlisted in its fiction category. Chancy is a Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.
David Dabydeen won the local Guyana Prize for ‘Best Book of Fiction’ with his novel Molly and the Muslim Stick (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008). It’s his fourth Guyana Prize for Literature award. Dabydeen, who is also a poet, is Professor of Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. He’s also Guyana’s ambassador to UNESCO and its Ambassador Plenipotentiary to China. He beat Karen King-Aribasala (The Hangman’s Game) and Janice Lowe Shinbourne (Chinese Women), both Peepal Tree authors. Dabydeen himself has also been published by Peepal Tree Press.
In the drama category of the local award, Harold Bascomb (Blank Document) was the winner, beating Janice Imhoff (The Changing Hand) and Grace Nichols (Blood and Wedding). No drama presentations were made for the Caribbean Award as the deadline for submissions has reportedly been extended.
Internationally-acclaimed, Guyanese author, Wilson Harris was awarded the first ever Guyana Prize for Literature “Lifetime Achievement Award” in absentia. Harris’s first published novel was Palace of the Peacock (1969), which was followed by a further 23 novels with The Ghost of Memory (2006) as the most recent. Harris who is 90 and lives in the UK, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2010.
No fewer than 11 Peepal Tree Press titles were shortlisted for the two awards – sweet reward for a publisher that has kept faith with Caribbean writers, including many from Guyana, since 1985. They wasted no time in capitalizing on their good fortune. Immediately following the announcement of the results, Peepal Tree offered a ‘Guyana Prize Bundle’ – all eleven Peepal Tree Press titles shortlisted in The Guyana Prize Awards at 30% discount.
By any measure it’s a stunning achievement for the steadfast UK-based publisher, albeit slightly marred by the reality that it underscores the quandary Caribbean-based writers are faced with – a woeful paucity of book publishers in the region and, for most of them, almost no hope of seeing their books in print, except through self publishing.
Interestingly, entries for the awards did not face any publication or copyright date restrictions. Usually, with literary awards, only books published within a specified and limited time frame are eligible for entry. In the case of the local and Caribbean Guyana Literary awards, entries published prior to 2010 were accepted. They included The Hangman’s Game by Guyanese-born, Nigerian-based Karen King-Aribisala, first published in 2007 by Peepal Tree Press. In 2008 it was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award, Africa Region. Mark McWatt’s Journey to Le Repentir was published in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press. Jennifer Rahim’s Approaching Sabbaths, released in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press, won the 2010 Casa de las Américas Prize. David Dabydeen’s Molly and the Muslim Stick was published by Macmillan Caribbean in 2008.
Prior to 2010, the last Guyana Prize for Literature award was presented in 2007 for books submitted in 2006. This may explain the decision to allow entries going as far back as 2007 for the 2010 awards.