GUYANESE writer, Imam Baksh, has been announced as the winner of 2018’s Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, which is a prize for children and young adult’s writing, that has been awarded as part of the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago. He emerged as the winner over Barbadian writer, Shakirah Bourne, and Elizabeth J. Jones of Bermuda.
Baksh won the award for the first time in 2015 for his then unpublished manuscript, Children of the Spider (now published by Blouse and Skirt Books). His second manuscript, The Demise of the Queen’s College Adventure Club was shortlisted in 2016 and now his third manuscript, The Dark of the Sea has won the award. The Dark of Sea has been described by the jury of the Burt Award for Caribbean Fiction as “a fantastical adventure story” where “the humour is dark, the morality complicated and the victories bittersweet.”
The writer himself describes the book as telling the story of a boy who meets a mermaid (‘fairmaid’ in Guyana and other parts of the Caribbean) and is introduced to a “stimulating world beneath the waves.” Baksh notes that the idea for the book came about as he was finishing his second manuscript which presented a world populated with privileged children who had horrible and terrifying experiences, and that The Dark of the Sea was meant to be a companion piece to it by presenting a character that comes from unfortunate circumstances and experiences something wonderful.
The protagonist of The Dark of the Sea is Danesh, a poor boy who did not write his Grade Six Assessment, has a learning disability and lives in a part of Guyana that has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. This summary of the lead character brings into focus the various elements of the Guyanese (teenage) experience that is well represented in Baksh’s work. The author makes it clear that the Guyanese-ness of his work is deliberate, especially when he points out the fact that the novel highlights what he deems to be a moral issue in Guyana: the “warehousing” of children who write the Grade Six Assessments – a system which allows many thousands of children to fall through the cracks, to be lost or forgotten as they attend schools with very little or sometimes no effective “remedial literacy or math and no path to redeem themselves educationally before going to CSEC” – all while a handful of students, the top ten, usually, are feted every year. The importance of this issue to the writer clearly finds itself manifested in The Dark of the Sea in the character of Danesh.
Furthermore, Baksh identifies suicide as a theme that is prevalent in the book. Guyana has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and it was only a matter of time before local writers began addressing it in their work. The writer notes that death is “a fact of life in the Essequibo Coast where the book is set and the book is, in part, an attempt to answer the question of why we should choose to live even in a world that often makes us unhappy.”
In comparing the writing process between his two award-winning children’s books, Children of the Spider and The Dark of the Sea, Baksh has said that the process for each one was quite similar. His method involved using ideas and images “to build a rough provisional outline” followed by writing scene by scene from beginning to end. He pointed out that sometimes he would skip ahead “to write certain important and enjoyable scenes” because he “was too impatient to wait.”
The differences involved in writing the process for these two books, Children of the Spider was a novel about an alien who visits Guyana, and Baksh says that he really had to think about the various elements of the country that an outsider would be most impressed by. Conversely, The Dark of the Sea is based on elements – places and people – the author is very familiar with. Baksh says that the book was written from personal memories and opinions that he did not have to sort out, and that “the mental effort went into creating the undersea world with its female-dominated society, its magic and history and their own set of principles that would contrast with Guyana to create a sense of wonder.”
Although The Dark of the Sea was meant to be submitted for last year’s Burt competition, the writing was derailed by Baksh’s chronic eye problems which temporarily hindered the completion of the text. Nevertheless, Baksh was eventually able to return to the book and completed it in time for submission to this year’s competition. Currently, he is one of the authors representing Guyana at the Bocas Lit Fest which is the largest and most successful literary festival in the Caribbean.