Sunday, January 04, 2004

I'm pleased this afternoon to announce the second annual Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards, for Caribbean books (i.e. books written by Caribbean authors, set in the Caribbean, or otherwise of particular Caribbean interest) published in 2003. (Read about last year's awards here.)

Once again: my sole qualification as chief judge is the fact that, for professional reasons, I try my best to keep up-to-date with Caribbean literary affairs; I receive on average three or four new Caribbean books each week, & read (or at least flip through) everything that seems even mildly interesting. (I seem to have read rather less than usual over the last twelve months, but perhaps it's merely that what I've been reading has been largely unmemorable.) My personal opinion is the only criterion for the awards, which are restricted to books published in English, since I don't read Spanish, French, Dutch, or anything else. Omissions due to poor memory are entirely possible. Here are the winners, arranged by category:

Fiction: Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, hence his novel A Distant Shore qualifies for this award (the story has nothing to do with the Caribbean), & wins.

Poetry: M.G. Smith's In the Kingdom of Light: Collected Poems, ed. Wayne Brown, is an important book, an opportunity to assess the work of an influential post-war poet, but it is largely a collection of juvenilia (Smith abandoned the writing of poetry when he was 24, & he was no Keats). It is runner-up to Vahni Capildeo's No Traveller Returns, a difficult but rewarding first collection by a young writer & scholar of whom, I suggest, you take note.

Drama: After Mrs. Rochester (a dramatisation of the life of Jean Rhys), by Polly Teale.

Biography or autobiography: Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire (the National Book Award judges agreed with me on this one. Read my review here).

Other non-fiction: Literary Occasions, by V.S. Naipaul, ed. Pankaj Mishra. Yes, this volume merely collects previously published essays. Yes, it tells the same story over & over again: the long-familiar tale of Naipaul's early life, the awakening of his literary ambitions, his search for subject matter, the trials of young writerhood, etc. etc. Some reviewers have found this book tired, if not tiresome. ("A piece of elegant repackaging," wrote my colleague Jeremy Taylor.) And, yes, I myself was irritated by its predecessor volume, The Writer and the World. But Literary Occasions surprised me. Juxtaposed like this, its half-dozen autobiographical essays seem more, not less, intriguing. The entire sequence seems not the symptom of deluded self-obsession, but a genuine & scrupulous attempt at self-understanding, the focus changing in subtle and unsubtle ways with each version.

And a new category:

Anthology: At Home the Green Remains: Caribbean Writing in Honour of John Figueroa, ed. Esther Figueroa.

Addendum: On the whole, I got more pleasure in 2003 from old books than from new. Of the new (non-Caribbean) books I did read, the best were Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches (his best novel since Room Temperature--I didn't much like Vox, The Fermata, or Nory, & I'm still waiting for him to come up with something else as insanely wonderful as U and I); & Denis Donoghue's highly stimulating Speaking of Beauty. I liked Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, Adam Thirlwell's Politics, & Geoff Dyer's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It well enough. I seem to have read no new poetry. I read none of the year's must-read titles (Brick Lane, Vernon God Little, etc.). I read Ian McEwan's beautiful Atonement about a year after everyone else, & wondered why I'd waited. But I came across nothing as life-changingly brilliant as, say, 2002's Everything Is Illuminated. Let's hope 2004 is a better reading year, if nothing else. And do email & let me know if there's anything worthwhile I missed in 2003. I'd never have read Atonement had it not been literally thrust upon me by an enthusiast.

No comments: