LLast week, Trinidadian writer Lisa Allen-Agostini’s novel The Bread the Devil Knead landed a coveted spot on the list of finalists for the Women’s Prize. As a fellow Trinidadian writer, this is both exciting and unsurprising. These days, Trinidad is producing world-class female writers. Allen-Agostini’s shortlist follows the announcement two weeks ago that Trinidadian writer Amanda Smyth had been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the only woman on the list and the first writer of the Caribbean to be chosen. Meanwhile, Celeste Mohammed has become the fifth woman (and third Trinidadian woman) to win Trinidad’s CMO Bocas Regional Award.
Something happened in Trinidad, in our small but dense greenhouse of the literary world. Maybe it’s 12 years of the Bocas Literary Festival, or five waves of feminism, or maybe it’s related to the internet opening up opportunities for developing countries, but over the last decade, Trinidad has produced a host of outstanding female writers. It’s a trend that anyone in Caribbean literary circles knows about. Myself, Smyth, Allen-Agostini, Mohammed and others are part of a “bed-boom”, and most of this boom is female. We find ourselves on the world stage, on prestigious lists in North America and the United Kingdom. This huge generational and gender shift would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago.
What makes this upsurge in our female literary talent so delightfully satisfying is that not so long ago, in 2011, Trinidad’s most famous writer, supernova VS Naipaul, despised women who write . During an interview with the Royal Geographic Society, he said: “I have read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know if it is written by a woman or not. I think [it is] uneven for me. He went on to say that it was because of women’s “tight and sentimental view of the world”.
Today I hope Naipaul rolls over in his grave – because the women of Trinidad don’t just write, we win awards for it. Last year, Ingrid Persaud won the Costa First Novel Award with Love After Love, while my novel, The Black Conch Mermaid, won the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award. Prior to these victories, Vahni Capildeo (a relative of Naipaul) won the Forward Award in 2016 for Expatriation Measures. In 2017, Shivanee Ramlochan’s debut collection Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize. And in 2018, Claire Adam’s Golden Child won numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Desmond Elliott Prize.
Many more female Trini writers are emerging as I write: female readers can expect an avalanche. There’s Ayanna Lloyd Banwo (her novel When We Were Birds is currently on tour), Ira Mathur, Alake Pilgrim, Hadassah K Williams, Breanne Mc Ivor, Judy Raymond, Desiree Seebaran. It’s as if someone had turned on a tap.
The OCM Bocas festival, launched in 2011, has played a decisive role in this development. Not only does Bocas feature Caribbean writers, but it is committed to developing talent through workshops and longer mentorship programs. Bocas gave Trinidad’s fledgling writers a structure, something to lean into. It connects our emerging writers with established writers in the region. In short, it gave us all confidence.
Then there is Trinidad itself. I call it “the place”. Charismatic, polyglot, sexycool, plagued by corruption and discontent, cursed by anti-LGBT colonial laws, barely free from child marriage, a place where one in three women experience domestic violence, historically and racially divided along African and Indian lines; it’s a place to write. It is also a place to celebrate; we have carnival, calypso, once an international film festival and now a premier literary festival. We are a multifaceted racial mixture, and our writers reflect it: Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Africans, Indians, Europeans. Our current wave of talent reflects no single narrative. It is a place of fusion and globalization through colonization, immigration and indenture. It is therefore not surprising that Trinidad has spawned many famous writers: VS Naipaul, CLR James, Earl Lovelace, Sam Selvon, to name a few.
But the pendulum has swung. There has been an earthquake: the present and the future, in terms of literary production in Trinidad, is feminine.