FROM living near the swampy lands of New Haven in Kingston to being the 2018 recipient of the Musgrave Award for Literature, Roland Watson Grant has once again displayed excellence after being named the 2021 regional award winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Now in its tenth year, the prize is for the best piece of unpublished short fiction, opened to citizens of all Commonwealth countries. Five regional winners will receive £2,500, while the overall winner will walk away with £5,000.
Representing Jamaica, Watson Grant wrote The Disappearance of Mumma Del which relates the story of a matriarch’s funeral being derailed as her body goes missing, creating panic and fear in a rural Jamaican district that is also on the verge of vanishing from the map.
“It was exhilarating but it was like a good medicine for everything that is happening right now in the entire world. With all the competitors from so many different territories, we have grown so close together. I felt like this was something that was right for the time that we are actually living in, where we found medicine and protection in words and in a community of storytellers,” Watson Grant told the Jamaica Observer.
Watson Grant said being one of the shortlisted candidates meant that he was doing something right but it was also a challenge for his writing capabilities.
“The Commonwealth Short Story prize is arguably the world’s most global story prize because [it has participants from] so many countries. There is no other literary competition that can say it is in 50 countries [and] even if people do enter from many different countries, it is not 50 countries in multiple languages. The prize is not about unpublished only, but it takes entries from published authors, therefore, you are doing something which is a challenge, and for you to get that far in a short list says you are doing something right,” he expressed.
Watson Grant said his excitement is similar to that associated with sprint legends Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell.
“You remember the excitement with Usain and Asafa, I feel like that. We [have] slightly been calling Jamaica a track and field factory, I would love that excitement that Marlon James started in 2015 when winning the Man Booker prize. I hope that we now have a clear view that Jamaica is also a literature country and that we are going to be having a number of talented literary artists coming out of Jamaica. I hope that other writers will be inspired and that Jamaica also realises that we have a rich literary history, going all the way back to Olive Senior,” he said.
When asked if he had envisioned this experience he replied, “I certainly hoped for it. When I was 13 at KC [Kingston College] I read Olive Senior’s collection called Summer Lightning and she had been named the winner of the 1987 Commonwealth Writers Prize. I just remembered reading one story of hers – Confirmation Day – and saying ‘okay, that’s it. I want to be a writer’. At that point, I didn’t know that this would happen but I certainly hoped that I could at least get to share [my] stories with the world.”
The author said his inspiration for writing is based on the different cultures interacting. “I am always writing in the space where cultures have conversation, whether that culture is geographical, as in one culture in one continent speaking to another culture in another continent or island, or whether it is a culture speaking to a culture through another culture, through time.
“We are called Jamaicans, taking that identity from a Taino word, and I believe that sometimes when culture speaks to different generations through time we need to pay attention because I believe we are always between past and future. The present depends on how we handle and look at the past and how we imagine the future. So the story is about protecting Jamaica’s cultural past but it is also about protecting the spaces that we live in.”
He admitted that his writing style changed since he was first shortlisted in 2017 for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. “I was very deliberate with this story, I think it is my most disciplined short story to date after writing two novels. Part of that comes from having an opportunity to have ‘master classes’ with some people in film. If you want to improve your short story writing or your novel writing, you need to talk to people who do film because they cut the story to the bone.”
Mentioning persons in the film industry such as director of the Last King of Scotland Kevin Macdonald, producer for UK television series Top Boy, Charles Steel, and film-maker Justine Hunzell, he said these individuals’ insight has positively impacted his writing.
“When I seek to submit work to Kevin Macdonald or Charles Steel, just for them to say ‘you can work on a film with us or not’ I found that their feedback made light bulbs go off. So immediately it wasn’t just talking about me trying to write a screenplay for film, it affected how I thought about stories in general. So I found that my writing has grown quite a bit in the last five years,” he added.
Roland also pointed out that he is working on compelling a short story collection and plans to venture into the film world.
“I am kind of one of the people who speak it [things] into being so I have been touting myself as a screenwriter for the longest time. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some people who it is a dream for other people to work with and I think I would have squandered that opportunity if I don’t continue,” he said.
Watson Grant hopes that his legacy will inspire people to write about their culture.
“I think we live in an incredible place and I don’t just mean the planet, I’m speaking of Jamaica – where two cultures converge, where there was a clash of civilisation. The marks of that clash are still all around us, the material culture from past civilisation, the economic effects and the 300 years of slavery that are still affecting our people,” he said.
The 2021 overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is set to be announced on June 30 during a special award ceremony.