Dr. Richard Georges won the 2020 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature on Saturday, making history as the first Virgin Islander to claim the accolade, which was launched in 2011. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

On Saturday evening, poet Dr. Richard Georges posted on Facebook that he was “waiting for someone to pull a Steve Harvey” because he was “shocked” at the announcement: He had just made local history by becoming the first Virgin Islander to win the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

Though friends, family and fans from all over were tuned in to the live Facebook announcement by the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, Dr. Georges took to social media to officially thank those involved in the process. First and foremost, he named his grandparents and mother, “whose fire spirits always encouraged me towards books and the arts.”

“It is important to keep in mind that [winning this prize] is not from out of the blue,” he told the Beacon on Monday. “I’m part of a tradition, … a long tradition of writers in the region and territory.”

Acknowledging his history and roots is at the centre of Dr. Georges’ writing, and he said it was a main factor in his eligibility for the prestigious prize.

Inaugurated in 2011 by the Bocas Lit Fest, the annual literary award honours works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by any writer born in the region or holding Caribbean citizenship. The $10,000 prize is sponsored by the Trinidad newspaper company One Caribbean Media, and shortlisted nominees are awarded $3,000.

The competition

Dr. Georges’ most recent poetry collection, Epiphaneia, competed with two other shortlisted finalists for the top award.

Also in the running were Everything Inside, a collection of short fiction by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, and the nonfiction book Shame on Me, by Guyana-born Tessa McWatt, who was raised in Canada and is based in the United Kingdom.

Epiphaneia is a collection of poems centred around memories, home and the recovery after Hurricane Irma. Since the competition was launched, only three poetry books have claimed the top prize, and Dr. Georges is the only Virgin Islander ever to be listed.

“I’ve been writing seriously with goals of publication for the past eight to ten years,” he explained. “It’s very labour intensive. It’s about sacrificing time. It’s about staying up late and devoting hours.”

 

The poems in Epiphaneia, he said, are carefully curated and refined, and more than a dozen didn’t make the cut.

“Just because you wrote it down doesn’t mean it’s good or right for the project,” Dr. Georges said. “If you’re trying to develop and push, you have to be willing to sacrifice. … You have to be willing to be vulnerable and broken down to the smallest components and be open to criticism and critique.”

HLSCC graduate

Dr. Georges, 37, studied English and creative writing after graduating from H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Texas Christian University in Texas, his master’s at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and his doctorate at the University of Sussex in England. He also has attended and facilitated workshops over the years.

He also hopes to bring a focus to visual arts, eventually hosting a workshop in St. John open to artists in the region. The workshop would be a Moko Magazine initiative, a magazine founded by Dr. Georges and St. Johnian writer David Knight Jr., and held at the Bajo del Sol gallery in Cruz Bay.

Besides writing, he’s staying active raising children and as the acting president of HLSCC.

Describing Dr. Georges’ book, publisher Outspoken Press, wrote, “Beyond the loss and devastation that such a natural disaster brings, Georges’ ideas span beyond the physical world, asking us to consider the ways in which families and communities come together amidst such tragedy.”

His inspiration comes from the landscape and history of the VI, as well as his experiences and personal life, Dr. Georges’ told the Beacon last year.

“I often think of who inhabited this space before me,” he shared, offering a glance into the mindset from which he draws inspiration.

The author launched the prize-winning collection last year during an Oct. 18 ceremony, when he signed copies of his books and read some of his poetry aloud at the Coconut Lounge at the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park.

He was surrounded by peers and long-time supporters who commended his work.

“As someone who is endlessly fascinated, utterly enthralled, by the cultural identity, heritage, and experience of the Virgin Islands, … Richard finds ways to bring to life into this heritage and experience of which I speak,” said Dr. Sauda Underwood-Smith, who previously taught with Dr. Georges at HLSCC. “He recreates the world, this world, through his poetry.”

‘Natural progression’

Though many have commended Dr. Georges for publishing three books within three years, he said his secret to such success is actually quite simple: pace.

“It’s a natural progression of work,” he said. “I carved out a schedule as I did during my doctoral and I kept the same rhythm and work ethic.”

Though his writing has gained international recognition and appreciation, Dr. Georges said the VI doesn’t “have that literary landscape just yet.”

He credited groups like the Callaloo Poets and others for cultivating creative spaces, but said he sees potential for the territory to expand in its appreciation for literature.

His first poetry collection, Make Us All Islands, was short-listed for the UK-based Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and his second book, Giant, was longlisted for the 2018 Bocas Prize.


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