Caribbean Beat Magazine

Written for the young of all ages | Closeup

Young adult (or YA) literature is aimed at teenage readers, but appeals to many grownups, too. And in recent years there’s been a boom in Caribbean YA, Kimberly De Souza reports, as she meets five writers telling innovative stories about Caribbean youth

  • Photo by Paula Obé, courtesy Lisa Allen-Agostini
  • The Chalice Project
  • Home home
  • Photo courtesy Vivian Aprado-Nuñez
  • The Art of White Roses
  • Photo courtesy Imam Baksh
  • Children of the Spider
  • The Dark of the Sea
  • Photo courtesy Jeanelle Frontin
  • The Unmarked Girl
  • Photo courtesy Shakirah Bourne
  • My Fishy Stepmom

When someone mentions young adult (or YA) novels, perhaps the thought of overcoming juvenile challenges may come to mind. The name of the genre — conventionally defined as aimed at readers from ages twelve to eighteen — often limits the true depth of the best YA fiction, and can deter adult readers from delving deeper into their young protagonists’ journeys. Or maybe the genre reminds us of our school days — of reading Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid or To Kill a Mockingbird Bird by Harper Lee, and being prompted to write a book report. But casting these books aside may rob us of the magic that comes from revisiting one’s childhood. Even so, many of us have been reading YA novels for years, even without realising it, since the label has become more widely known in the Caribbean only within the last decade. 

YA novels are usually focused on characters the same age as their intended teenage readers, and many critics agree that is the only difference between this genre and “adult” fiction. And although Caribbean authors have been unveiling young characters to eager readers for years, a recent wave of interest in Caribbean YA has led to new opportunities for emerging writers, and a flourishing of the genre.

One key development was the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, administered by Trinidad and Tobago’s Bocas Lit Fest from 2014 to 2019. Headed by Marina Salandy-Brown, Bocas partnered with the Canadian charity CODE and Canadian philanthropist Bill Burt to set up the award, which recognised three writers each year, with not just a cash prize, but publishing deals and guaranteed distribution across the region.

Salandy-Brown says the purpose of the CODE Burt Award was to create an ecosystem partnering authors with readers. “When we first started,” she recalls, “everyone said, You’re crazy, no one in Trinidad reads — but we knew there were closet readers. And by giving these writers a chance, we have allowed the readers to come out.”

After recognising a total of eighteen Caribbean YA books, the final CODE Burt Awards were granted this year. During the six-year run, some of the Caribbean’s best new YA novels made it into the hands of curious readers. The five writers profiled and interviewed here — all of them CODE Burt Award winners — speak to the diversity of recent Caribbean YA fiction. From stories of the fantastic to explorations of the real-life issues facing young Caribbean people, their books enrich the imaginative worlds of readers of all ages.

The dystopia lover: Lisa Allen-Agostini

Poet, journalist, editor, actor, stand-up comedienne — Trinidadian Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Jane-of-all-trades in the creative industry. She published her first chapbook of poems, Something to Say, as a teenager, before cutting her teeth as a features journalist at the Trinidad Express. In fact, Allen-Agostini has worked at all three daily newspapers in T&T, attaining the rank of assistant features editor at the Guardian

In 2017, she moved to the T&T Newsday, where she worked as a freelance writer. It proved fitting for the seasoned journalist, since the most influential person in Allen-Agostini’s writing life was, and is, the Newsday editor-in-chief (and former Caribbean Beat editor) Judy Raymond. “She’s one of the best practicing journalists in Trinidad,” Allen-Agostini says. “I consider her a mentor. She’s hard, she can make you can cry with an edit,” she continues, recounting an earlier time at the Express. “I was now starting as a journalist, and I would write something and send it to her. It would come back with a bunch of red markings. It was torture, but it was the best way to learn.”

Parallel to her career in newspapers, Allen-Agostini has never stopped writing poetry and fiction — including two books for young adult readers. And it was her work as a reporter that led her to the YA field. During an interview with Joanne Johnson — prominent Trinidadian author of children’s books — she learned about a call for manuscripts for a new fantasy series. “All that had to be submitted were three chapters,” Allen-Agostini recalls. “I gave them to her, and she said, ‘Yes, I like this, let’s go with this.’ She was my first YA editor, and she was very supportive. There were times when I couldn’t go on, and she pulled me up.”

As a result of Johnson’s support, those three chapters evolved into The Chalice Project, published in 2008 — Allen-Agostini’s first attempt at writing a full-length fantasy novel. It has encouraged her to pursue other literary avenues, particularly in Caribbean Afro-futurism. “I like my ‘topias’ ‘dys,’” the comedienne jokes. “So I wrote a story about Trinidad after global warming.” She adds, as if teasing that her writing can be even more provocative, “I also wrote a story about a lesbian La Diablesse” — the supernatural temptress of T&T folklore. 

Her second YA novel, Home Home, was an unpublished manuscript when she entered it for the CODE Burt Award in 2017. Placing third that year, it was snapped up by Papillote Press — with North American rights soon sold to Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The novel will be republished next year. Agostini says the new version will be different from the original, as she’s added new content and reorganised the entire book. 

Unlike The Chalice Project, with its classic sci-fi scenario, Home Home is a realistic coming-of-age story about a Trinidadian teenager struggling with depression, sent by her mother to live with an aunt in Canada. Despite tackling hard issues of mental health, sexuality, racism, and family dysfunction, it manages to be a gripping and affirming read — and proof that fiction is one of the most effective mediums for younger readers to process big questions about identity and self-worth.

“We are where we are because of what came before”: Viviana Prado-Nuñez

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Viviana Prado-Nuñez spent her formative years between her native island, where she lived with her father and half-brother, and Maryland, where she lived with her mother. Her family life was fragmented, she admits, but she appreciated the happy times, too. She cherishes her brother, calling him “a terrifically terrifically terrifically good person. And as much as I’d like to give myself credit for it,” she adds, “that boy is honestly a miracle child.”

Her novel The Art of White Roses, written when Prado-Nuñez was still a teenager herself, and published in 2016, tells the story of a young girl, Adela, who grows up in Cuba in 1957 and begins to notice the strange disappearances of her neighbours. As she tries to figure out the reason for their absence, she considers how family, violence, and revolution play a role in shaping herself. The Art of White Roses won first place in the 2017 CODE Burt Awards, making Prado-Nuñez the youngest-ever winner of the prize.

Describe the moment you knew you wanted to be a writer — and why YA?

I’m not sure, but I think I decided to be a writer because I read Harry Potter and thought it was cool — I was thirteen. Writing a YA novel was honestly a little bit of an accident. In general, I tend to write the age I am at, or the age I was just at, and because I began to write the vignettes that later became the novel at the age of fifteen, thirteen felt like the right age to write about at the time.

If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?

No idea. Something arts-related, probably. Acting, maybe?

What would you do differently, if you had a chance?

Nothing. We are where we are because of what came before. And out of all the mistakes I’ve made, I can’t think of any I could have avoided, considering the place I was during that time of life. There was no way for that version of me to have known better, and because of the mistake, I learned. So I forgive that version of myself. And I would change nothing.

Which character in your book would you say is similar to you?

Adela is definitely a past version of myself. Although I am very extroverted and very weird and outgoing in real life, I tend to write the characters that I view as representative of me a lot shyer than I actually I am — mostly because I used to be shy when I was younger. And I guess my internal voice never grew into anything different.

What’s something about yourself that you want to improve?

I’m trying to freak out less. And to treat myself as if I were another person I’m giving advice to. I am utterly cruel to myself sometimes, and am also in that weird stage of life in which I’m approaching graduation [from university] and realising that thing most everyone has to realise at some point, which is that I can’t have my future planned to a T, and honestly the best parts of life are the ones that come unexpectedly.

The hero-maker: Imam Baksh

He’s published two prizewinning novels, and if that doesn’t impress you, maybe the fact that Imam Baksh also runs a preschool and kindergarten in his native Guyana, and still has time to write, will get your attention. 

His Children of the Spider won the CODE Burt Award in 2015, and three years later The Dark of the Sea scored the same achievement. There must be some element in Baksh’s writing that’s twice made him the “chosen one” — maybe it’s his knack for combining Caribbean influences with fantastic plots to create novels that are both contemporary and entertaining. Or maybe it’s the compelling dialogue that make his characters seem genuine and familiar. If you ask him, it’s the way he uses surprises, character flaws, jokes, and unifying themes that makes his novels feel connected and whole.

Baksh says he always told stories for fun, but it was his parents who planted the seed that germinated the author within him. “They read to me from an early age, and always made sure I had books of my own to read. They used books and writing as part of their parenting.” He enjoys reading YA novels even as an adult. “These kinds of books seem to address more energetic conflicts, more colourful scenarios,” he says. “And, thematically, they tend to be about a hero rising to their potential, all without a simplistic view of conflicts and morality. And I suppose it’s natural for me to write the kinds of stories I enjoy.”

Children of the Spider tells the story of two indigenous children who try to escape from the Spider Gods in the land of Zolpash. Some critics suggest the novel presents an interesting twist on Anansi, the trickster spider character known to many Caribbean readers and listeners of the oral tradition, derived from West African folklore. Baksh says he took a huge liberty with Anansi — first of all, by making the spider a female. “I also tried to make my Anansi more literally human, by having her fit into the human world more realistically,” he explains. “She moves in human form and is more of a puppeteering politician gangster who deals in promises and secrets, rather than outright tricks.”

His follow-up, The Dark of the Sea, introduces a dyslexic fifteen-year-old boy living on the Guyanese coast, whose relationship with the ocean takes a dramatic twist when he’s introduced to a fantastic underwater world and a thrilling mission. One review called it magical realism done well, combining details of contemporary Guyanese life that ring utterly true and a classic fantasy story about a character who evolves from misfit to hero.

“I’ve been given an extra serving of passion for life”: Jeanelle Frontin

Jeanelle Frontin grew up in San Fernando, south Trinidad, in a Christian home. Family discussions were unfailingly profound and intense across a multiplicity of concepts, she remembers, whether concerning current affairs, education, strategising for the future, or the advancement of the globe.

She was always an avid reader, but Frontin came to fiction-writing relatively late. In 2016, she began to imagine the character of a girl named Yara, who knows nothing about her past — found as a baby by strangers and taken to a village where she was raised. Years later, as a sixteen-year-old, Yara begins hearing voices that cause her to question her identity, as she seeks to uncover her true purpose in life. The story of her journey begin in The Unmarked Girl, winner of the 2019 CODE Burt Award, and continues in two sequels: The Eld Queen and The Melded Truth, forming what Frontin calls the YaraStar Trilogy.

When did you first want to be a writer?

I can’t say that I considered becoming a fiction writer before 2016, when the story of Yara first entered my soul. Fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I wasn’t surprised that the story had that nature. At that point in time, however, I hadn’t decided to target a younger audience. Only when I knew the age of my protagonist — sixteen years old — did I know my market for this series.

What would you do differently with these books, if you had the chance? 

I’d stick to my commitments-to-self and timelines — as much as is humanly and divinely possible — and avoid the consequence of a very intense year of creation. 

But, you know what? I don’t think I’d do many things differently if I had a second chance. I learned so much over the two years before I began the first book, post-synopsis, all of which influenced my writing. I can only accept the lessons and do better next time.

Which character in your book would you say is similar to you? 

Oddly enough, three characters are similar to me: an extremely brave and loving eight-year-old called Mila — my inner child; the spiritually guided mother of the protagonist, Maia — my connection to spirituality; and, of course, the series star, Yara. Yara is the culmination of what it means to battle for an identity without understanding what it means to have one. I believe this is a common challenge for all humans.

What was your biggest obstacle in life, and how did you master it?

I have many passions. For example, I’m a science and technology fanatic, and I loved my engineering degree just as much as I loved writing, music, and creative arts. However, I once believed that I needed to narrow down my pursuits to be a more “responsible” adult. In an attempt to streamline, all I ended up reducing was my fire. Going after “too many” things, or even being “too much” as a person, is relative to what someone else feels comfortable or fulfilled pursuing. Accepting that perhaps I’ve just been given an extra serving of passion for life was liberating.

What’s something about yourself that you want to improve?

I’d say that when I am near to the finish line, after a long period of labour, I push myself so hard that I burn out after I cross it. But the race isn’t finished then. Getting to the finish line — deadline or goal — is one thing, but a new “race” begins right after: nurturing painstaking quality into whatever you’ve produced. Post-production is a concept that’s adaptable to any endeavour, and I prefer to use that term than to call it “editing.”

The child at heart: Shakirah Bourne

Writer and filmmaker Shakirah Bourne admits she always told scary stories to frighten her sisters and cousins when they were growing up in Barbados. Then adult obligations set in. “After I got my first job,” she recalls, “I had no time for writing. I was absolutely miserable, and it was only after signing up for a writing course with George Lamming that I realised I was so miserable because I had no time to write.” So ten years ago she quite her full-time job to pursue writing as her main career. It hasn’t been easy, she says, but it’s been worth it.

She first came to wide attention as a filmmaker, with the comedy-drama Payday — Bourne wrote the script, and co-directed and -produced the film as well. A local hit, Payday went on to be screened throughout the Caribbean and in the US and UK, and was followed by a sequel, Next Payday, and then the ambitious A Caribbean Dream, a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shot in Barbados with an international cast. Meanwhile, her self-published collection of short stories In Time of Need was released in 2013, and won Barbados’s Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction. 

It was the CODE Burt Award, she says outright, that really challenged her to write a full-length novel. “I had written adult literary fiction for years, but several persons told me I should write for children, because I tend to write stories from a child’s point of view. When the Burt Award opportunity came up, I had a story and concept in mind, and decided to go for it.” 

The result was the hilarious My Fishy Stepmom, about a young Barbadian girl, Josephine, who suspects something is “spooky” about her father’s new girlfriend, Mariss. A series of mysterious events begin when Mariss comes along, forcing Josephine to become an investigator in an effort to solve the mystery of her stepmother. It’s pitched at younger readers, but Bourne says the novel straddles the line between the upper-middle-grade age group — eight to twelve years old — and YA, yet the content can be enjoyed by older readers and appreciators of any youthful, entertaining plot. 

She adored her main character and the story, Bourne says, and she started to read other middle-grade and YA books — “And now I’m hooked! I intend to write books for kids and young adults for a very long time.”

Among her awards and accomplishments, one of the things Bourne is most proud of is bringing Barbadian stories and culture to an international stage. “Sometimes people have never heard of my country, or not know much beyond sun, beach, rum, and Rihanna. I’m proud that my books show them a glimpse of the culture and the people.”