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Guyanese wins Commonwealth Writers' Prize

Professor Mark McWatt, Guyanese author of award-winning novel 'Suspended Sentence: Fictions of Atonement'.

Professor Mark McWatt
GUYANESE SCHOLAR, Professor Mark McWatt won the coveted 20th Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the category overall best first book for his novel Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement.

The winners were announced Tuesday last by His Royal Highness, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

While the overall best book award worth 10,000 went to The Secret River by Kate Grenville of Australia, McWatt was awarded 3,000 for his satirical tale of life in Guyana.

The Commonwealth Writers' Prize, awarded annually, aims to reward the best in Common-wealth fiction written in English, by both established and new writers, thus taking their work to a wider audience.

The judging panel for the overall awards was chaired by Professor Chris Wallace-Crabbe of the University of Melbourne.

He was joined by the four chairs of the regional judging panels - Professor Mary Kolawole (Africa region), Professor Aritha van Herk (Caribbean and Canada), Professor Angela Smith (Eurasia - Europe and South Asia) and Professor Vijay Mishra (South East Asia and South Pacific).

QUALITY OF BOOKS

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Chris Wallace-Crabbe said they were intrigued by the outstanding quality of the works of fiction facing them.

"Books flowed to the Prize from Guyana to New Zealand, from Malta to Malaysia. We noted that, in particular, the Prize continues to reward new talents in English language fiction. Among the eight regional prize winners, there was an exciting range of formal experiment, and a great play of interesting voices. The eight winning books, which included linked short stories as well as novels, explored country, belief, crisis and identity."

This year's Best Book, Kate Grenville's The Secret River, is a powerful historical novel which acknowledges the competing claims of settlers and aborigines in 19th century Australia.

In the best first book winner, Suspended Sentences, Caribbean writer McWatt presents a delightful caravan of stories that explore the changing character of Guyana," he said.

Said an elated McWatt: "I'm very happy to have won the overall prize for best first book, especially since I have come to know, over the past days, the work of the other regional winners and to realize how wonderful all the competing books are. I feel deeply privileged that my book was chosen as overall winner."

The 20th year of the prize coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Common-wealth Foundation and confirms the Foundation's ongoing commitment to nurturing and promoting culture in this diverse and vibrant community.

ABOUT THE NOVEL

Back in 1966, each of a group of Guyanese sixth-formers is 'sentenced' to write a short story that reflects their newly independent country.

Years later, McWatt, one of the group, is handed the papers of his old school friend, Victor Nunes, who has disappeared, feared drowned, in the interior.

The papers contain some of the stories written before the project collapsed. As a tribute to Victor, McWatt decides to collect the rest of the stories from his friends.

Whether written by their youthful or adult selves, the stories reveal not only their tellers and the Guyana most of them have left, but offer an affectionately satirical take on Guyanese fiction making.

Amongst the stories, we read about the sexual awakening of a respectable spinster by a naked bakoo in a jar; an expedition into the Guyanese interior that turns into a painful homoerotic encounter; a schoolboy who is projected into an alarming science fiction future; and about an academic (in a brilliantly tragicomic story) who confesses the betrayal of his friend.

There is Victor Nunes' visionary story that blurs the frontiers between past and present and, in the concluding story, McWatt reveals how the group came to be handed down their suspended sentences.

In this tour-de-force of invention, by ranging across Guyanese ethnicities, gender and time in the purported authorship of these stories, McWatt creates a richly dialogic work of fiction.

About Mark McWatt

Mark McWatt was born in Guyana. He took his first degree at the University of Toronto, and then went to Leeds University to complete a doctorate.

He is currently head of the English Department at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Barbados. He has published two collections of poetry; Interiors (1989) and The Language of Eldorado (1994), which won the Guyana Prize.

Suspended Sentences is his first work of fiction. He has published widely in journals on aspects of Caribbean literature and is joint editor of the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005).

In Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement 'characters circle multiple challenges as they throw off the yoke of colonialism in Guyana'.

The judges described his collection of stories as 'refracting light like a powerful and many-faceted diamond'.

He is the first Guyanese winner since 1991, when Pauline Melville won the overall Best Book prize for Shape Shifter.

Source: Jamaica Gleaner Published: Sunday | March 19, 2006


Mark McWatt

Mark McWatt was born in Guyana. He took his first degree at the University of Toronto, and then went to Leeds University to complete a Ph.D. He is currently Head of the English Department at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Barbados. He has published two collections of poetry; Interiors (1989) and The Language of Eldorado (1994), which won the Guyana Prize. Suspended Sentences is his first work of fiction. He has published widely in journals on aspects of Caribbean literature and is joint editor of the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005). In Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement 'characters circle multiple challenges as they throw off the yoke of colonialism in Guyana'. The judges described his collection of stories as 'refracting light like a powerful and many-facetted diamond'. He is the first Guyanese winner since 1991, when Pauline Melville won the overall Best Book prize for Shape Shifter.

Source: The Commonwealth Foundation

 

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