Didn’t make it to any of them? Here are my top picks from the books featured at the festivals. They should keep you laughing, thinking and celebrating Caribbean life all through the summer.
1. As Flies to Whatless Boys, Robert Antoni (Trinidad; published by Akashic Books)
With its Caribbean launch at the Kingston Book Festival, Whatless has been steadily gaining fans for its witty, raunchy dialogue; its skillful use of the vernacular; and, above all, Antoni’s masterful storytelling. Whatless is an adventure-packed historical novel, chronicling the efforts of the ill-fated Tropical Emigration Society to establish a utopian colony in Trinidad in 1845. The book won the Bocas Prize for fiction and copped the overall prize (beating Kei Miller’s non-fiction winner Writing Down the Vision and Lorna Goodison’s poetry winner, Orocabessa, both of which are well worth reading.)
2. All Over Again, A-dziko Simba Gegele (Jamaica/Ghana; published by Blouse and Skirt Books)
First-time author Gegele copped the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature with her blisteringly original novel All Over Again, a coming of age story about one school year in the life of a twelve year old boy living in the Caribbean. Don’t let the fact that it won an award for Young Adult Literature deter you. Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper called All Over Again “pleasurable … to the young-at-heart and the mellowed…the sort of book that makes you want to read it all over again.”
3. Pepperpot, Various Authors (Regional; published by Peekash Press)
If the rave reviews from the launch at the Bocas Lit Fest aren’t enough to convince you, try this from the renowned Library Journal: “The wonder in these stories is that they show Caribbean culture—the people, sounds, food, and music. Like Alex Wheatle’s Island Songs, this book will appeal to readers of Caribbean fiction and beyond.” Pepperpot features outstanding short stories from the Commonwealth Writers Prize, boasting entries from six islands.
4. The World is a High Hill: Stories About Jamaican Women, Erna Brodber (Jamaica; published by Ian Randle Publishers)
A featured author at the BIM Literary Festival, the recent writer in residence at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus has been sharing her work and helping to hone the skills of a new generation of Caribbean writers. Brodber’s skills as a teacher notwithstanding, the real treat is in absorbing the unique characters and compelling scenarios she creates. Her latest work is this outstanding collection of short stories, which features a tapestry of Jamaican women’s experiences.
5. Sketcher, Roland Watson Grant (Jamaica; published by Alma Books)
Look. If you haven’t read Sketcher yet, this is your chance. The sequel to Watson Grant’s critically celebrated first novel hits shelves this summer. Sketcher follows the trials of Skid Beaumont, a nine year old growing up in the swamps of Louisiana in the 1980s, weaving in magic, folklore, mystery and humour. Critics have been singing paeans for Sketcher, calling it funny, wonderfully joyous, rambunctious, richly textured, heartfelt and beguiling. While the author isn’t busy with turns at the Kingston, Bocas and Calabash Festivals, he’s fielding comparisons to everyone from JD Salinger to Mark Twain.
6. Huracan, Diana McCaulay (Jamaica; published by Peepal Tree Press)
Winning the Hollick Arvon prize at the Bocas Literary Festival will allow McCaulay time to complete Loving Jamaica, a work of literary non-fiction. ‘Til then readers can enjoy her last novel Huracan – the story of a white Jamaican attempting to regain her footing in her country of birth after a fifteen year absence. Published in 2012, Huracan was recently shortlisted for the Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
7. Sounding Ground, Vladimir Lucien (St. Lucia; published by Peepal Tree Press)
Some authors are so powerful in person that they require you to read their work. Vladimir Lucien’s panel and reading at the Bocas Lit Fest were star-making, revealing insight and maturity well beyond his years. Lucien’s work has been appearing with increasing frequency in journals and anthologies; his debut collection proves he has no problem standing on his own.
8. Malorie Blackman, Verna Wilkins (Grenada; published by Tamarind Books/Random House)
One of the highlights of BIM Lit Fests children’s programme was a reading by veteran children’s writer and publisher, Verna Wilkins. With more than 30 picture books to her credit, Wilkins has been a pioneer in creating books for and featuring black children in the UK (and she’s a bit of a hero to me.) Wilkins is also known for writing bios of outstanding black Britons for children. Though Wilkins treated the BIM audience to Dave and the Tooth Fairy, her bio of fellow children’s writer and current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman is a double treat for both children and adults.
9. Gemsigns, Stephanie Saulter (Jamaica/UK; published by Jo Fletcher Books)
Sci-fi isn’t usually my thing, but Saulter’s reading at Calabash was enough to convince me to give her series a try. Gemsigns is the first of the Evolution trilogy, which interplays themes of racism and classism into a tale about genetically engineered humans.
10. Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture, Mervyn Morris (Jamaica; published by Ian Randle Publishers)
This one’s a no-brainer. Veteran poet and Jamaica’s newly minted Poet Laureate has penned a biography of fellow poet, cultural advocate, language activist and national inspiration, Louise Bennett. Reading excerpts to a packed house at Bocas, Morris’s passion and respect for his subject was palpable, making him the clear choice to tell the story of an equally passionate poet.