Maps and the Bajan Writer

American-born writer Paule Marshall, whose themes about the Barbadian Diaspora in her 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones still speak to readers today.

American-born writer Paule Marshall, whose themes about the Barbadian Diaspora in her 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones still speak to readers today.  But are Bajans listening?  Photo Copyright © 2014 by Art Sanctuary. 


For a second time, AE Editor Robert Edison Sandiford was the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts Chief Judge for the Goddard Enterprises Literary Competition.  The following is an amended excerpt from his Chief Judge's Report.  It was delivered at the Literary Arts Gala, which was  produced by Barbados' National Cultural Foundation and held at The Grande Salle in Bridgetown November 5, 2015.

My theme for this year is actually themes.  I have no further comments on this year's NIFCA literary competition results.  Sometimes, we focus so much on numbers that we can forget why we’re doing a thing, and what goals we had set for ourselves to begin with as a society or culture. 

Instead, I want to talk—just a little—about what some of our writers are talking about, and also about what others who have entered the competition are writing about.   To borrow an observation from writer Heather Menzies, “culture is more than the industries that produce it; more, too, than ‘let me entertain you.’  Culture is a map and a compass; its knowledge, traditions and narrative lines help us to navigate the larger scheme of things, cutting through the scripted messaging to core issues.”  

In my report last year, I spoke about the difficulty the judges had in separating the art from the therapy in a number of NIFCA entries in this competition.  A number of entries seemed to be cries for help, and that remains a challenge to be addressed.  It is a challenge Barbadian writer Heather Barker touched on recently in the Barbados Business Authority of September 21st.  If made Prime Minister for a day, she told the paper she would “have a National Venting Day where interested residents would gather at ‘pop up’ small groups facilitated by counsellors to share their hurts, anger, frustrations and pain….  We focus a lot on financial, physical and spiritual health and we should pay equal attention to our emotional health….” 

Maybe it would help if some of our NIFCA entrants had a National Venting Day.  Maybe these entrants in the literary competition would recognize when the work they are submitting is an act of pure catharsis—for the relief and unburdening of the heart only—and not an act of art, the creation of a thing that communicates a beauty and truth about the human condition that go beyond individual experience.  Maybe we need workshops to help with this recognition, and to help more entrants extract workable themes from their personal narratives.  If they so desire. 

Of course, all writing is a form of self-expression; but what separates a tale well told or a poem you’d read again and again from mere self-expression are the shape of the sentiment it contains, the crafting of the language, the distillation of thought found in the work…and how all this is spun around a theme, or governing idea, or principle or belief.  What the judges would like to continue to make clear to those who enter NIFCA’s literary competition—to those who medal and those who have yet to—is that while some or even all art may be in some way therapeutic, not all therapy may be judged as art.  And that’s all right—that’s quite all right—if rightly understood.

But there’s a perception, at home and further afield, and perhaps as a result of so much therapy-as-art on the local market, that Barbadian writers have nothing of importance to write about these days, hence Barbadian writing is boring, parochial, out of touch, or a touch too self-regarding.  We have plenty of personal narratives, few, it seems, universal themes. 

If NIFCA is any kind of gauge, and it should be some kind, this is not entirely the case. 

It’s a lazy assumption that troubled writers write troubling stories, or that happy writers write happy stories.  All writers write the stories they feel compelled to write based on their experience of their environment, time and place, which are usually by nature hostile to the writer.  I say this because the writer’s reaction, in words, is often to life as it is, life as it ought to be…at least from his or her perspective.  Because Barbados doesn’t have the same kind of overt or frequent social unrest, violent crime or ethnic injustices as other countries doesn’t mean we don’t have our share of problems, or that our writers aren’t seeking to address or reflect some of them in their art.  Many of our conflicts, many of our wars, are fought as much internally as in our streets.

Our writers in this competition have given us a look at Barbadian inhumanity toward the homeless and poor; the elevation of National Heroes to folk gods; teenage struggles against a predatory adult world.  There’s also humour, the kind that makes you smile and shake your head, in the memories of hopeless childhood friends.  The modern migratory habits of Bajans, and their consequences to the individual and to family, are still striking.  So is the casual brutality, the thoughtless evil, of our own youths. 

This is why I want to talk about themes: because I want to talk about the relevance of our writers to their age, of those who are professional and those non-professionals who yet enter this competition with serious intent.  I want to talk about how powerful they are as tellers of our stories, as witnesses to our times and traditions, our foibles and failings. The above themes, writ very simply and seldom to “special” prize, are among those the judges happily encountered in their readings.  These are great themes.  Not the least because they remind us Barbadian writing remains as funny, reflective, intellectual, playful, speculative, and, yes, fairly accessible as ever.  The joint win this year of the Governor General's Award of Excellence in Literary Arts by Winston Farrell for his poetry collection Barefoot on Ice and Shakirah Bourne for her story collection In Time of Need says something, too, about the dynamism of our literature across generations.       

During my time as judge and chief judge for NIFCA’s literary competition, in the last ten years or so, I have seen the emergence of potentially great Barbadian writers.  These individuals are quite possibly the next Lammings, Brathwaites, Marshalls, Draytons, Collymores, and Callenders, to name a very, very few of those writers whose works we as a people would be less strong without.  Even as we celebrate and reward the efforts of our emerging writers at NIFCA, it will be up to these men, women and children to continually up their game; to tell us more than just about themselves in their work; to map more of our world, times and traditions—than they ever thought they could—be it with a poem, a story, an essay, or a script.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for talking.  Thank you for listening.