Story Sundays: “The Gun” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

Lisa Allen-Agostini
Lisa Allen-Agostini

Justin is a good boy. He minds his little sister, Lichelle, when their mother teeters off the edge of responsibility, when her presence at either the dinner table or the ironing board is conspicuously absent after a night of unspecified work. It is Justin who fastidiously readies Lichelle for school, Justin who hands over twenty of his own dollars for a textbook she needs, a textbook she will be physically punished for not having. Brother and sister pass by the enterprising young Pedro on their way to school, Pedro’s faithful, mange-riddled pothound Mackie trailing in their wake. Pedro, with his dapper threads and ready supply of crisp notes, is well disposed to treat Justin kindly: it is thanks to Pedro that Justin wears a pair of spotless Clarks to school. After classes, Justin goes to check Pedro at the latter’s request. While liming beneath a mango tree, Justin accidentally dislodges Pedro’s gun from its concealment cubby. The gun in Justin’s hands is dense, a previously unknowable entity coming to life in his hands, a thing of great promise and dread.

Allen-Agostini’s biting use of urban Trinidadian vernacular reads like a welcome two-fingered salute against the edicts of writing dialogue by conventional, powdery-wigged standards. The narrative is arguably at its strongest when it issues directly from the mouths of Pedro, Lichelle and Justin, as well as the story’s more peripheral characters: the overbearing schoolteacher haranguing Justin over his tardiness; the elaborately coiffured receptionist who somehow manages to conjecture that Justin has been late six days in a five-day schoolweek. What the characters say becomes entrenched in the manner in which they say it, and the writer is good at fuelling the exchanges of direct speech with just enough spatial context to sell us the scene convincingly, while steering away from an expository paint-by-numbers approach. Witness, for instance, Pedro’s gentle admonition towards his less fiscally endowed friend, when the latter refuses the chance of an evening toke.

“If is money you ain’t have, you know that is not a problem, faddah.” Pedro slipped the bag backing into his pocket and flicked away a seed from the handful of weed he had been cleaning as he leaned against the mango tree. “You know you’s my boy. Ent we play pitch together? Ent I give you them Clarks you does wear to school? A ten dollars ain’t nothing, faddah.”

Pedro’s mannerisms reveal his practiced swagger, his fingers dismissing the seed a tiny testament to previously-acquired proficiency with handling the marijuana. One gets the impression that ten dollars may be ‘nothing’, perhaps, but that all manner of transactions between the two, those which attest to Pedro’s magnanimity — whether over a ten dollar spliff or a pair of shoes worth hundreds — will be catalogued, mentally recorded and set down in an invisible ledger of accounts. As the story’s suggestive antagonist, Pedro is a formidable piece of characterization: affable, kitted out in the respectable accoutrements of his profession, young, far from unintelligent, and deadly.

Yet the treatment of villainy in Allen-Agostini’s story is far less simplistic than holding up one streetwise little boy for vilification. A single juvenile weed-peddler may do well for a less involved treatment of the roots of urban domestic decay, but not here: here, the finger-pointing can justifiably waggle in multiple directions. For all that she is conspicuously absent in the story, Justin and Lichelle’s mother’s weighty shadow dominates the children’s familial disarray. Nothing is even remotely intimated of the pair’s father. What we absorb of the mother is revealed through her off-stage actions: the sounds of her slapping her daughter, the sight of a sequined bra sticking out of an overflowing clothes barrel, the silence that Justin uses in response to “Eh heh? And where your mother was?”

As with the best writing that knows how to cleverly conceal its bruise-making declarations, “The Gun” is good at knocking you where you least expect it. Consider the markers of measurement used by Justin to gauge the gun’s weight.

“Hefting it in his hand, he thought it was about the weight of his sister’s bottle, which he still had to make her every night even though she was going on six. No, it was heavier than that. Maybe the weight of the pot he made her porridge in, a battered old iron pot with fat, round handles on either side. The gun’s barrel was smooth. He had never felt anything like it.”

Virtually every experience endured by the protagonist is filtered through his solicitude for his sister. He categorizes his interest in the death-delivering weapon through the objects he uses to help keep Lichelle alive. We want nothing more than to root for this solemn boy-adult, flung unceremoniously into the daily duties of a grown man. He is less of a cape-collared, stolidly-hewn hero against Trini lower class wars, and more someone who does what he must because no one else does, or can, or will, in a series of meticulous, stoic gestures that make him all the more heroic.

“The Gun” reminds the reader of the often-vacant desperateness of hope: we hope that Justin will continue going to school, even though his needs seem insufficiently and obliquely-met within those walls. We hope that he will not abandon his painstakingly pressed uniform to sidle alongside Pedro’s dubious, pistol-toting ranks of sequined shirts and solid blocks of ganja. We hope that even the most starved and runtish of common-breed puppies will survive to endure another uncertain day, and we wonder at the quality, consistency and base worth of hope as a precious, limited virtue.

You can read “The Gun” by Lisa Allen-Agostini here. (sx salon) Author photograph by Richard Acosta.

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation and engage in discussion on the short fiction form, which often receives less attention than full-length works. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine.

Books, Bites and The Allen Prize

The official event flyer.

The Allen Prize for Young Writers hosted a fundraiser sale last Saturday at Alice Yard. I was pleased to volunteer my time and expert novice sign-making abilities, but I confess straightaway that I had ulterior motives. (Books. Used, delicious books.)

I interviewed Lisa Allen-Agostini, founder and chair of the Allen Prize, in the midst of a packed 2012 Bocas Lit Fest schedule. It was only then that I realized properly how indispensable the foundation has been to fledgling young writers, particularly those who receive no other recognition for their work. The Allen Prize is a not-for-profit organization, dependent on goodwill and the revenue generated by events such as these. The first of these baked goods and used book fundraisers was held in late August, and one can hope (dream?) that the Trini bibliophile crowd will be treated to a third before year’s end, or early in 2013.

Customers linger thoughtfully in front of the Literary Fiction section.

I browsed. I taped up price lists and endeavoured to respond helpfully to patron queries. I shamelessly hid books I’d earmarked for myself minutes before customers wandered in. (I paid for all my books, okay.) I had brilliant conversations about all manner of bookish topics, and I avoided throwing myself upon the delectable pastries. There are distinct things I love about used book sales: the rich multiple-partner marriage of tomes from so many households, each title telling not just the story in print, but the funny, weird, moving stories of their previous owners. We learn so much about books and the people who loved or loathed them, through margin scribblings, dedications, curious bookmarks, a dogeared page or much-creased spine.

(L) Joshua Sammy, the 2012 Allen Prize Young Writer of The Year, in conversation with children’s storyteller Auntie Thea and romance writer, Heather Rodney-Diaz. (R) A patron browses selections in Caribbean fiction.

The Allen Prize posse knows how to host a seriously addictive second-hand book sale. That’s good news for the talented young writers who benefit from the worthy fundraising, and equally happy tidings for those in love with all things literary.

 My shameless, shameless haul.  

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. Event photographs courtesy Lisa Allen-Agostini.
Photo collages created with Pixlr. 

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.