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Trini women dominate Small Axe competition

Saturday, November 26, 2016
Portia Subran won first prize for short fiction. Photo courtesy: Roger Seepersad

Roxanne Mannette

The Small Axe Literary Competition carries an undeniable cultural cachet—and this year, three of its four major prizewinners are T&T women.

Portia Subran claimed first prize in the short fiction category for her story Mango Season. Following her in second place in the same category was Ayanna Gillian Lloyd, for her story Public Notice. In the poetry category, Soyini Ayanna Forde's selection of seven poems titled Learning to Swim emerged as the winner.

The only non-Trinidadian on the winners' row, Jamaican Chenee Daley, earned second place for her poems.

The prize, established in 2009, has become synonymous with writing excellence. Several of its winners have gone on to sign significant publishing contracts. Among the ranks of its past T&T winners are 2013 Commonwealth Short Story prize recipient Sharon Millar; and Hollick Arvon for Caribbean Writers prizewinners Barbara Jenkins (2013) and Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné (2015).

One might be prompted to ask: is there something in the T&T water that's piping out literary productivity?

In email interviews with Subran, Lloyd and Forde, the answer was: yes, but perhaps not quite in the way you would expect.

Each of the writers eschewed a get-lucky-fast scheme to creative writing. In separate yet intertwined ways, their answers pointed to months and years of careful editing, revising and, ultimately, accepting the unpredictability of a writer's life.

Set in Trinidad in the early 1900s, Subran's Mango Season drew inspiration from another of her creative callings: visual art. It's a story of two brothers under the care of a struggling single mother, left to the cruel whims of her mother-in-law, and its vistas come straight from the canvas.

“I based the setting from my father's oil paintings of his childhood: catching froghopper moths in the sugar cane fields and playing with the resting bison at the watering holes,” Subran said.

Her story went through a year's cycle of writing, editing and rewriting, which is similar to the creative cycle that defines Lloyd's Public Notice.

In her own words, Lloyd framed Public Notice as the story of “a young woman who goes to the morgue to identify the body of her estranged father. While there she has an unexpected encounter that leads her on an unlikely path to forgiving him.” It's a tale that occupies central themes of mortality and resistance to that finite state, which typifies much of Lloyd's creative work.

Like Lloyd and Subran's Small Axe entries, Forde's poems span a creative timeline: two were written two years ago, one was written prior to that, and three of them were composed in 2016.

Explaining the title of her submission, Forde said, “The lead poem is inspired by wanting to learn to swim and learning, finally, as an adult. I began swimming lessons in March this year, so there is an immediacy about that poem that is new for me.”

For all three writers, being from T&T isn't an identical passport stamp affixed to all its citizens, meaning there's no one way to creatively represent oneself, or one's concerns, when it comes to putting words on a page.

While Lloyd claimed Trinidad as the “first point of orientation” in her writing, she added: “I am also a Caribbean writer and a Caribbean diaspora writer and an African diaspora writer-it's an identity that expands outwards almost in concentric circles allowing me to claim from a multiplicity of perspectives and a range of influences.

“As a Caribbean/African diaspora writer I claim Trinidad, and Tobago, New Orleans, Haiti, Nigeria, Jamaica, Colombia-the list goes on.”

Subran and Forde were equally quick to claim T&T while decrying any one notion of how to be a Trinidadian.

Forde, who was born in California and raised in T&T, contended with a multiplicity of identities in her response, saying, “My nationality certainly complicates my experiences with perceptions and assumptions of citizenship.

“I'm not the only Trinbagonian I know either, who was born in the US and grew up in T&T, so it's not a unique position but in considering how we come to be who we are, it's a crucial factor.”

Subran's views of T&T as not a singular voice, but a collective of voices, underscored this stance for the three writers.

The winning works will be published in Issue 53 of Small Axe, a highly regarded Caribbean literary journal. The issue is set for a July 2017 release.

First-place winners Subran and Forde each collected US $750, with Lloyd receiving a second place prize of US $500. Money, however, is so clearly the least of the motivating factors for these three writers-in truth, it is the work itself that visibly retains their greatest interest, focus and commitment.

Each of them warned against resting on one's laurels, a sentiment echoed most strongly in the words of Lloyd: “Keep working. Keep writing. Take a second to feel good about it, look forward to seeing your work in print—Small Axe is a great journal so maybe take a little more than a second—but then just go again. That's the life.”

I'm not the only Trinbagonian I know either, who was born in the US and grew up in T&T, so it's not a unique position but in considering how we come to be who we are, it's a crucial factor.


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