Sunday, 4 May 2014


Caribbean countries have seen a huge boom recently in literary prizes, appointments and festivals, as governments and the public come to recognize writers’ cultural contributions to the region. But questions remain about long-term commitment to this arts sector.

Jamaica's new Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris
For the first time in 60 years, Jamaica now has a poet laureate, for instance. Acclaimed scholar and writer Mervyn Morris, 76, was named to the largely ceremonial position in April and will begin his three-year term after his investiture on May 21.

His appointment followed a competition managed by the Entertainment Advisory Board to the Ministry of Tourism, in collaboration with the National Library of Jamaica, and the Ministry of Youth and Culture. During the contest, the public was invited to make nominations and many people submitted the names of their favourite poets.

The Tourism Enhancement Fund contributed J$3.4 million (US$31,000) to the initiative, leading to queries about just how the government regards literature. Is the position to be used to create entertainment and attract more tourists, or to promote art for the nation’s sake?

Tourism Minister Dr. Wykeham McNeil said in fact that Jamaica’s Poet Laureate programme would help to position the island as a key “cultural tourism destination” by helping to revitalize the arts and preserve the country’s rich literary history.

“The project dovetails perfectly with our efforts to use programmes such as Arts in the Park, 90 Days of Summer and Reggae Month …to increase support for and give greater exposure to our local art forms, while using Jamaica’s cultural strength as a tourism attractor,” McNeil said.

The cover of one of Morris's books.
“We are therefore pleased to be giving an even greater voice to Jamaica’s literary arts through our support of the Poet Laureate Programme.  Developing the literary arts remains a key component of our strategy moving forward and this new programme will help to further bolster this initiative,” he added.

The Poet Laureate’s mandate includes promoting Jamaican poetry at home and abroad, and Morris told SWAN that he looked forward to carrying this out. “I hope to facilitate increased contact and understanding between Jamaican poets and potential audiences,” he said. “The position is an honour, and I am grateful.”

He said he planned to arrange for poets to visit schools and colleges and also hoped to persuade the media to make more space for effective poems, and perhaps for discussion of some of the pieces. 

“It is expected that, by the end of my three-year tenure, there will be an anthology of poems, including perhaps some previously featured in the media,” Morris told SWAN. 

The poet was born in Kingston and studied at University College of the West Indies and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was a UK Arts Council Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the South Bank Centre in 1992 and currently lives in Kingston, where he is Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing & West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies.

His poetry collections include The Pond, Shadowboxing and Vestiges, and he has also edited various anthologies and written extensively on Caribbean literature.


Morris’ appointment came ahead of a slew of awards to Caribbean writers at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest held April 23-27 in Trinidad and Tobago, recognizing the wealth of the region's output.

Robert Antoni's winning novel
The three-year-old festival, which bills itself as an “annual celebration of books, writing and writers”, handed out several prizes, with U.S.-born West Indian writer Robert Antoni wining the overall 2014 One Caribbean Media (OCM) Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for his book As Flies to Whatless Boys.

Antoni said he would share the US$10,000 award with the two other finalists:  Lorna Goodison who won in the poetry category for Oracabessa, and Kei Miller who won in the non-fiction section for Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies. Both writers are from Jamaica.

Antoni said the prize was "wonderful" and "necessary" and that it was up to people in the Caribbean to define their own identity and to "take a place on the world stage".

The festival was also the venue of the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, given to three English-language literary works for young adults. The winning submissions were All Over Again by A-dZiko Gegele, Jamaica; Musical Youth by Joanne Hillhouse, Antigua and Barbuda (manuscript to be published); and Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith Dennis, Jamaica.

Another award, which may have the greatest political impact, was the 2014 Hollick Arvon Caribbean writers prize that went to another Jamaican author - Diana McCaulay for her work in progress Loving Jamaica.

This prize recognises emerging Caribbean writers and provides opportunity for training and for their completed work to be published. For McCaulay, who is founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, the prize is a boost to her environmental work as well.

Diana McCaulay
“This award brings together my activist life and my writing life,” McCaulay told SWAN. “This is the first time I’m writing specifically about my environmental journey.” 

The author of two novels and several short stories, McCaulay has been working for years to protect the environment in Jamaica and is currently in a legal battle with the government over plans to develop a transshipment port at Goat Islands – an area of unique animal and plant species. (See

Among her concerns is the lack of information that has been given to the public. “All our Access to Information requests for the technical proposal or the Framework Agreement between the Government of Jamaica and Chinese investors for this project have been denied.  We have therefore filed legal action requesting leave to apply for judicial review of these decisions,” she told an interviewer.

A court hearing is scheduled for later this month. It will come a few days before the start of Jamaica’s leading literary festival – Calabash – which this year will feature controversial writer Salman Rushdie, among an international group of literary stars from May 30 to June 1.