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Barbara Jenkins - A Poui of a Writer
To speak to her, you would have no inkling that Barbara Jenkins is shaping up to be one of the Caribbean’s well-celebrated voices. Though she began focusing her vibrant imagination on writing for less than a decade ago, she has already copped several important awards including the inaugural Hollick-Arvon Prize for Emerging Caribbean Writers. She is blessed with a charming, beautiful spirit which easily comes through with every smile.
“Writer to me growing up was always a remote person in a different country with a different kind of background, and with a different kind of access,” Jenkins says. And so, although she has not yet adopted the word to describe herself, that is precisely what she is.
Jenkins’ first collection of short stories Sic Transit Wagon and Other Stories received its pre-lease at the 2013 Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad and Tobago and is slated for official release in June of this year.
“Writer is my third life. It’s kind of like a firework,” she said, explaining that it may shine bright but it will burn only briefly. Jenkins’ easy candor refers to the fact that she is at the stately age of 71 years-old and therefore although she is an emerging voice that is taking the Caribbean literary landscape by storm, she is not a young voice. Of course, Jenkins needs to remind people of her age, because her youthful persona and vibrance certainly belie it.
Jenkins explains that she came to writing fiction late in life. She elaborates that in about 2007 she was asked to join two friends, Jenny Scott and Nicolette Laird, to participate in a writing group. Her first short story was written for her first meeting with the two women and based on the traffic jam she experienced earlier that afternoon. The story, then titled ‘Vision 20/20’ is included in her collection under its new name ‘It’s Not Where You Go, It’s How You Get There’. The story also helped to earn her a place at the Cropper Foundation Residential Workshop, to which she was introduced by Nicholas Laughlin, artistic director of the Bocas Literary Festival.
“I was a little timid about it but he was just so warm and encouraging,” she says of Laughlin. “He must get a million requests from people saying can you look at my foolishness.”
Jenkins explains that teaching is the occupation to which she has devoted most of her life, and so previously writing was relegated to letters, minutes and programmes notes, which she describes as “a kind of tinkering with words”. She laughingly elaborates that were in not for the “tyranny" of Jenny and Nicolette she would not have considered pursuing the path.
Sic Transit Wagon contains 16 short stories a few of which came out of her time with Jenny and Nicolette, three were written during her tenure at the Cropper, and the others written during her MFA. Two of the stories in the collection have already won awards. ‘Ghost Story’ copped a Small Axe short story competition while ‘Cherry Pink and Blossom White’ earned a Wasafiri New Writing award in 2011. Jenkins also has two Commonwealth Short Story regional prizes under her belt and she was again shortlisted in 2013.
Jenkins laughingly notes that she found entering competitions valuable for the deadlines. “I’m beginning to think I don’t do anything without a deadline,” she said.
However, she also admits that winning the competitions brought important validation. “What they did for me was give me a confidence that what I did could stand up to scrutiny by people who didn’t know me. It gave me a kind of validation that exposing my work locally couldn’t,” she explained. The accolades for her writing from these competitions came unburdened by worry that it was being said by people who didn’t want to offend “the nice little old lady”.
She reveals that she is currently working on a collection of linked short stories, with the working title The Rightest Place and has no intentions of writing a novel.
“I don’t want at this stage to take an academic approach to writing,” she said. She notes that the MFA at UWI, St. Augustine did not focus on craft which provided her with a freedom she embraces.
“If what I’m doing right now is working without worrying about narrative arc and plot and characters, I don’t want to bother with that now,” she says.
Jenkins names Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott as chief among the many living writers whom she admires. “I have Derek Walcott at my bedside,” she says. She notes that the book may change but a Walcott remains. She explains that Walcott reminds her that although they grew up looking to the outside world as colonial subjects they have learnt to look within and value what they see.
“He reminds me that poui yellow blossoms are as valid as daffodils dancing in the breeze,” she says.
And Barbara Jenkins is one poui of a writer, waving brilliantly in the Caribbean breeze.