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.