Talking with Lisa Allen-Agostini about The Allen Prize for Young Writers

Lisa Allen-Agostini. Photo: Richard Acosta

I tell her I’ve been writing since I was 11. A strange thing happens to me when Lisa Allen-Agostini then puts this pointed, precise question to me during our mid-Bocas Festival conversation:

“How did you feel, at 11, as a young writer, beginning to discover your own voice?”

The truth? It was as terrifying as it was liberating. I realized, with the retroactive shock of absolute clarity, of just how isolated I was in my pre-adolescent writing world, of how much I longed, without even articulating it specifically to myself, of someone to let me know: what you’re doing is valid. It isn’t a waste of time. Thankfully, I had my mother’s incredible support in my writing life, as the years went by, but nothing compensates for that 11 year old girl’s absolute uncertainty, her silent, shy worries. I had my mother, and Lisa’s children have her, but we both acknowledge grimly: thousands upon thousands of our nation’s budding writers have had, for so long, no one… and this is the void that The Allen Prize for Young Writers seeks to fill.

“There was no guesswork over my writing ambitions”, Lisa tells me… just as much as there’s been no guesswork about her commitment to furthering the hopes and dreams of young authors and poets. Her love of children’s books has stood her in good stead throughout her life; it didn’t taper off when she became an adult. It’s important to remember the distinction, too, between writing for children, and writing by children, she reminds me. I’ve got to nod in recognition of this, as I know that the latter category often faces severe ordeals in being legitimized, to say nothing of published. This is why initiatives like the well-stocked NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s Children’s Programme bring Lisa joy – because they help mark a clear path forward. The fact that the 16-story collection, Children’s Stories from the Bocas Lit Fest 2011, is available for purchase nationwide: this is significant, too, but how much notice does it receive in our local media? How many good stories do we tell about young people reading and writing, and seeking to script out a future from their passion for literature and storytelling?

Lisa and the winning Allen Prize writers of 2011, at the awards ceremony on the 29th.

The galvanizing moment in Lisa’s writing career came when she won Clico’s annual Put it in Poetry Competition for secondary school students. (Sadly, the prize is no longer active.) The win signalled to her the beginning of infinite possibilities she could imagine for herself and her work. It’s that strength of imagination she hopes to share with The Allen Prize program participants. The foundation is about much more than the bestowing of a cash prize, though that’s one of its highlights. It hosts annual, intensive workshops with established writers in mentorship roles, as well as three seminars yearly, which address multiple aspects of a young writer’s craft, process and everyday concerns. As telling testimony to the practicalities of the program, The Allen Prize also guides and facilitates the potential publication, staging and transmission of participants’ completed works, enabling fresh, promising talent to forge significant relationships that can well last a lifetime.

Lisa and I discuss the worrying dearth of regional young adult fiction, a bemusing irony when one considers the vast popularity of that particular genre in worldwide publishing. We chuckle irreverently over what, to us, seems like the lacklustre presentation (though we use much meaner terms to describe it!) of Caribbean literature in most Trinidadian bookshops (with the notable exception of a special few, such as Joan Dayal’s Paper Based Bookshop at The Normandie). Frankly, Lisa’s tired of Caribbean literature getting the short end of the stick… within the Caribbean, no less, and what gets her hackles up is the underrepresentation paid to young writers in particular. All the better, then, that one of the festival highlights this year celebrated The Allen Prize for Young Writers, rewarding the talent and ambition of our upcoming who’s who in all things local and literary. Held on the last day of full festival activities, the event was a well-attended, inspiring success, and will hopefully serve to draw even more reluctant young writers out from beneath their sequestered stairwells, showing them – look, it’s okay to fully and unapologetically embrace your dreams.

“When I get an idea, an idea worth pursuing, you can be certain that I’ll follow it,” Lisa smiles, and I think I speak for most people when I say that Trinidad and Tobago is the better for Lisa’s unflinching persistence, her fierce dedication which proves that the best stories can be scripted with pencils and crayons just as well as they can with an exclusively adult pen.

For more information on the work that The Allen Prize for Young Writers does, visit their official website, as well as their frequently-updated Facebook page.

Group photo by Rodell Warner, our official 2012 Festival photographer.

4 thoughts on “Talking with Lisa Allen-Agostini about The Allen Prize for Young Writers

  1. Hey Shivanee, this sounds like a great initiative. I could really identify with your description of starting to write as an 11-year-old. It was terrifying! I was also lucky to have supportive parents who encouraged me to keep going, and writing quickly became comforting. I was always a shy, awkward child, and the things I said always seemed to come out wrong, or too late, or not at all. But when I was writing, I had the time to think things out and set them down just right, and so I could express new ideas and start to understand the world around me better. Without that early encouragement, though, I never would have started, so I think anything that gives support to young writers is fantastic.

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    1. Absolutely, Andrew! I see that you’re living and working n Barbados (a stone’s throw away, really!) As far as you know, are there any similar initiatives for young writers there? I’m always interested in hearing how the literary atmosphere in other Caribbean islands compares to Trinidad’s.

      Yes, writing was for me, too, a way to articulate observances that I believe might otherwise have been kept inside. As you’ve said, parental support makes such a colossal difference. That’s why I’m glad that the children who attend Allen Prize workshops, and write with that sense of community, won’t feel utterly adrift in a society that hasn’t had the best track record of esteeming creative arts (but really, what society has, unfortunately?)

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      1. I’ve only been here since December so I’m not that qualified to speak for the state of Barbadian literature, but my impression is that there’s very little support for young writers, or indeed any writers. I went to a talk a couple of years ago by George Lamming and he was complaining that although literacy is very high in Barbados, there’s not much of a reading culture, or much support for literature. I was shocked in the main bookshop in town to see almost all foreign books, and the shelf marked “Barbadian literature” was full of cookbooks and other nonfiction titles clearly aimed at tourists.

        But as I said, I’m new here so my impressions don’t count for too much. I should find out more next week – I’m going to the first ever Bim Literary Festival.

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  2. Pingback: Books, Bites and The Allen Prize « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

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