The Commonwealth Writers Prize releases shortlist

Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
Stabroek News
February 25, 2007

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The Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Canada and the Caribbean Region has released the shortlist of books from which the 2007 regional prizes will be selected. The judges have named seven in the shortlist for the Best Book award and six for the Best First Book out of a field of 110 entries. The regional winners, one in each category, will be decided in March,after which they will go forward to compete with the winners from the other three regions for the overall prizes which will be decided in May at the grand finale to be staged this year in Jamaica.

The Commonwealth is one of the largest and most prestigious literary prizes for English language in the world. It covers the entire globe of Commonwealth countries which is divided up into four regions: Canada and the Caribbean; Africa; Europe and South Asia; South-East Asia and the South Pacific, each of which has its own competition for the two categories Best Book and Best First Book. Those eight winners are then brought together for the two overall prizes. The 2006 prize was awarded to Australian Kate Grenville for The Secret River (Cannongate) for Best Book and to Guyanese Mark McWatt for Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement (Peepal Tree).

This prize for works of fiction started in 1987, but its history goes back further to the Commonwealth Poetry Prize of earlier years, which was discontinued to make way for the present award for fiction. It was established to recognise the vast and growing universe of literature generated by the several nations of the Commonwealth, to promote this development, expose the work to a wider audience and further educate the world about the existence of these authors and their work. The Commonwealth Foundation, based in London, is responsible for the prize, which is one part of its function. It is an intergovernmental organisation set up to assist civil society organisations to promote democracy, development and cultural understanding in Commonwealth countries. This establishment now receives support from the Macquarie Foundation, one of Australia's leading philanthropic foundations and an outreach arm of the Macquarie Bank.

The following are the shortlists for Canada and the Caribbean.

Best Book

Peter Behrens (Canada), The Law of Dreams (Anansi); Willi Chen (Trinidad), Chutney Power (Macmillan Caribbean); Mark Frutkin (canada), Fabrizio's Return (Random House); Claire Messud (Canada), The Emperor's Children (Knopf); Nega Mezlekia (Canada), The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitade (Penguin); Alice Munro (Canada), The View from Castle Rock (McClelland and Stewart); David Adams Richards (Canada), The Friends of Meager Fortune (Doubleday).

Best First Book

Anar Ali (Canada), Baby Khaki's Wings (Viking Canada); D.Y. Bechard (Canada), Vandal Love (Doubleday); Rawi Hage (Canada), De Niro's Game (Anansi); Kei Miller (Jamaica), The Fear of Stones (Macmillan Caribbean); Nathan Sellyn (Canada), Indigenous Beasts (Raincoast); Russel Wangersky (Canada), The Hour of Bad Decisions (Coteau Books).

The overwhelming majority of the entries in the Canada and Caribbean Region have always come from Canada where there is a substantial immigrant population and Canadians of several different ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes entries from the Caribbean are relatively few, but their record of success over the history of the prize has been significant. Many of the leading West Indian writers have been winners, including Denis Scott (Jamaica) and David Dabydeen (Guyana) who achieved Best Books when the prize was for poetry. Since the start of the competition in fiction their run of success in the region continued with victories by Olive Senior (Jamaica), Erna Brodber (Jamaica) and Pauline Melville (Guyana). More recently the winners have included Austin Clarke (Barbados), Caryl Phillips (St Kitts), Earl Lovelace (Trinidad and Tobago) and Mark McWatt (Guyana).

In 2003 there was a very interesting case involving another prominent Caribbean writer who, after having been declared winner of the Best Regional First Book, disqualified himself from the contest. The judges announced Kwame Dawes of Jamaica as the winner for his first collection of short stories. Dawes, however, declared that he had to decline because he was unable to prove that he was a Jamaican. He was born in Ghana of a Jamaican father who then took him to Kingston where he grew up and spent the first thirty years of his life. It was a very active and prolific 30 years during which he developed as a poet, a fiction writer, a musician, a member of a band and a reggae specialist. Dawes explained, however, that while there was never any doubt about his nationality or his Jamaicanness, at no time during those years was it thought necessary to process any official documentation for him. He felt that if there was ever any legal challenge about his eligibility he did not feel secure in his ability to prove it.

Another interesting footnote concerns one of the members of the jury for this year (2007). Mark McWatt is one of the judges, and not for the first time. But he is also the winner of the Best First Book for 2006. While nothing is found wrong with that, it has been an issue in Guyana where similar cases have aroused controversy in the Guyana Prize for Literature. Some Guyanese have raised questions, challenges and suspicion about cases where some prominent writers have served as judges in one year and have won the prize in some other year. This has been frequent practice in the Commonwealth and other major prizes and has always passed without comment.

The Commonwealth Judges for 2007 are:

Canada and the Caribbean - Prof Aritha Van Herk (Canada), chairman; Prof Mark McWatt (Guyana); Peter Oliva (Canada).

Africa - Prof Arthur Gakwandi (Uganda), chairman; Jane Ciarunji Geteria (Nairobi); Dr Olufemi Joseph Abodunrin (Malawi).

Europe and South Asia - Prof Angela Smith (United Kingdom), chairman; Supriya Chaudhuri (India); Aamer Hussein (United Kingdom).

South East Asia and South Pacific - Dr Christine Prentice (New Zealand), chairman; Dr Anne Brewster (Germany); Sudesh Mishra (Australia).

This is how the judges describe the shortlisted books for the Canada and Caribbean Region 2007.

BEST BOOK (Best work of fiction)

The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens (Anansi) is a fascinating exploration of a historical and cultural voyage. Poetic and detailed, the novel draws the reader into an immigrant world freighted by a disturbing displacement of contemporary human values and relationships. Memorable and enjoyable, this story has both weight and magic.

Chutney Power by Willi Chen (Macmillan Caribbean) portrays the flavour of Carnival through Indians in south Trinidad seeking integration with the Carnival culture of the island. This collection of short stories is as flavourful as the bus routes and the markets and the bottle washers and the love and the poverty that are depicted. Vivid and memorable, they are as expressive as Indian calypso itself.

Fabrizio's Return by Mark Frutkin (Random House) is an evocative novel exploring the perplexities of life in 18th century Italy. The grace, style, and erudition of the writing easily bridge the gap between that historical period and our own. Thick with one-eyed dwarfs and odd little priests, this story amplifies the unchanging nature of love and desire and political calculation.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud (Knopf) is a stylistic tour de force, painstakingly evoking familial treachery and social stratification. A comedy of manners and a microscopic examination of moral dilemma, this novel draws its characters with sharp acuity through witty and multi-layered dialogue. This is a work of subtle and extraordinary verbal artistry.

The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades by Nega Mezlekia (Penguin) is a novel impressive for its attention to detail, for its portrayal of marvellous small town lives in Ethiopia. This subtle, deceptively simple story combines a tale of lost childhood with the history of a vanishing world as it struggles to "modernize" through the spiritual transformation of Mechara, one little eden-like hamlet at the eastern edge of Ethiopia.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (McClelland and Stewart) is a collection of stories that balances family remembrance with ficto-history. Munro's distinct and undeniably exquisite touch is evident in her melding of the personal and the autobiographical, the historical and the speculative. The artistic tension enacted on the page resolves the hauntings of memory and the temptations of invention.

The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards (Doubleday) is a large and sweeping novel about the grand conflicts and small tragedies of ordinary and unsung people, working to keep body and soul together. The skill and accomplishment of the writing evokes a community, a cruelty, and the power of both rumour and loyalty.

BEST FIRST BOOK (Best first work of fiction)

Baby Khaki's Wings by Anar Ali (Viking Canada) is a collection of rich, imaginative tales, replete with the unexpected and the magical. These stories invite the reader into different worlds, ranging between Canada and East Africa, and they reflect on the relationship between imagination and culture.

Vandal Love by D.Y. Bechard (Doubleday) is an innovative and risk-taking epic about a family in search of a place to call their own. Through writing both poetic and gritty, this strange quest narrative about misfits and boxers, giants and runts, abandonment and love, draws the reader into its unforgettable orbit.

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage (Anansi) is a fast-paced high-impact adventure drama about the dangers and anxieties of a chaotic contemporary world. Using a fine cinematic voice and style, Hage offers an immigrant tale as naked action but accomplished surprise.

The Fear of Stones by Kei Miller (Macmillan Caribbean) captures the idiosyncratic pulse of life in marginalized Jamaican communities. This collection of folktales, dark and compelling, mythologizes a landscape of rejects and lovers through an authentic dialogue. Tragic and moving, these stories articulate a clear but unforgettable narrative voice.

Indigenous Beasts by Nathan Sellyn (Raincoast) is a collection of skillfully contrived stories that reveal their author's transgressive imagination. His razor-sharp prose unfolds these tough, uneasy tales about desperate young men cast on the edge of the inhuman and inexplicable.

The Hour of Bad Decisions by Russell Wangersky (Coteau Books) is a collection of beautifully crafted stories, clean and metaphorically rich. Portraits in time, they gesture toward the stubborn and inescapable bravado of error and mistake, and yet are heartbreaking for their helpless inevitability.

After the regional winners are announced in March they go forward for the overall Best Book and Best First Book Prizes which are to be announced during the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica on May 27.