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Barbara Jenkins’ Tobago Writing Retreat

Photograph by Elspeth Duncan, Tobago

The Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize is an annual award which allows an emerging Caribbean writer living and working in the Anglophone Caribbean to devote time to advancing or finishing a literary work, with support from an established writer as mentor. It is sponsored by the Hollick Family Charitable Trust and Arvon, in association with the non-profit organisation the Bocas Lit Fest.

Here, Barbara Jenkins, who won the prize last year, blogs about her recent writing retreat in Tobago.

Tobago Retreat

“Nam myoho renge kyo…  nam myoho renge kyo…  nam myoho renge kyo…” repeated chanting, then the melodious chime of a singing bowl struck with a mallet. It entered my sleep, so softly, so insidiously, that I didn’t actually hear it; it was more like I’d sensed it. My septuagenarian bladder responded with an urgent appeal for relief. Delaying, wondering what time it was, I glanced out the window. The stars were still out, doing nothing to dispel the blackness of a rural Tobago night. Still, I’d better get up, I suppose. In the living room a single candle lit a figure sitting in sukhasana, the cross-legged lotus position, in front of a shrine. My host, Elspeth, dressed all in white from crocheted tam to muslin khurta and long cotton trousers, was praising the start of the day at three o’clock in the morning.

Time to write and a place to write. I had friends on both islands search far and wide for the ideal place – modern comfort with peace and quiet. That’s what I wanted and that’s what the cash award of the Hollick-Arvon prize was meant for.  I got both less and more than I’d bargained for. Less, in that, in that house in Goodwood, on Tobago’s windswept side, there was no internet, no phone, no TV, no radio, no newspaper and a difficult road access. More, because apart from unlimited peace and quiet, there was the bonus of Elspeth, artist, vegetarian chef and yoga master, as flatmate.

So, fully awake at three on mornings, I would sit up in bed with my laptop and write until about two hours later, when my sentinel and life-coach, the pawpaw tree outside my window, separated itself from the surrounding darkness and waved its palm-shaped leaves to me signalling that it was time to go down to the beach.

Elspeth would take a ten-minute headstart to walk down the steep hill to Fort Granby beach. I would have a cup of tea and drive my twenty-year old Lancer to catch up with her. We kicked off sneakers – hers, and cloth slip-ons – mine, rolled up trouser legs to knees, and set off along the beach where sky, sea and sand melded into one milky-grey canvas. We would turn our faces east, out to sea, to catch the sky glowing at the horizon and a pure, newly-washed disc of gold rise from the water. We’d turn back at the river mouth, walk through the surf, challenging a drenching from the rhythmically crashing waves rolling in, all the way from Africa. We’d look for gifts, delivered in the night by the wild sea. One day it yielded a fishing net entangled in a massive piece of driftwood that resembled a beached and ensnared Loch Ness monster; another, it gave up a lovely little purpleheart bench encrusted with barnacles. Those we took back with us, along with cupped-hand-size hollow taupe balls – the water-worn inner shells of young coconuts. Those last, she’d paint, use as decorations, give as gifts.

A shower, a vegan breakfast of fruit and little patties made from lentils, then more writing; this time at the dining table in the main room where almost wrap-around sliding glass French windows open to a wide view over the hills and cliffs that bracket the bay below and widen to the ocean beyond. By ten the sun is high enough to have gilded the bay to an unbearably bright dazzle, so that your eyes would smart when you look up from the screen towards the ocean. Instead you rest your eyes on the cool green of the forested hills and you try to give names to the shades of green as if they’re on a home décor colour chart. But the sea is always there, in the salt you could taste when you lick your lips, in the sound of waves against the cliffs, in the smell of clothes hung to dry on the clothesline slung between coconut trees, in the mirror light that it would hold long after the sun has slid over the mountain into the western sea.

On afternoons, I would sit up in bed, read over the morning’s writing, edit, dabble a bit, then put the laptop down on the bed next to me and I’d look at the pawpaw tree. During the month I spent in that room, I was witness to a marvellous cycle of botanical life. The pawpaw tree has just one unbranched trunk from which single large palm-shaped leaves emerge. At the axils, flowers are borne. Male flowers come in a long spray of many blooms; female flowers emerge alone. A pawpaw tree is either male or female. Mine was female.  I saw a tiny light-green bud, no bigger than a baby’s fingernail poke out at an axil. It grew, then opened to one small creamy white flower. Bees came by, wasps and flies came by. Birds visited. The flower wilted, folded in on itself, turned brown and fell off. In its place was a little green knob, a baby’s thumb, which grew to a plump fruit, adult-hand size, by the time I left. Not ready for harvest yet, but getting there.

I saw six flowers go through bud, pollination, fertilisation and fruit. In the same period of time I had written and rewritten and edited and re-edited more than sixty pages of the De Rightest Place, the working title of my novel. I’d left my home with a pale little flower. On retreat, it was fertilised by living with nature. It produced a new green fruit. But it’s not ready; no – not yet. The house at Goodwood, Tobago, in the company of Elspeth, was indeed the rightest place to write. My heartfelt gratitude goes out to the Hollick-Arvon award for making this gift of time and place possible.

I came back home, to Trinidad, to more than a hundred emails, phone messages, piles of bills and other life distractions. I’ve enjoyed another birthday, Christmas and the start of a New Year. Little work on the novel has been done since Tobago. Today is Epiphany and I’ve had mine. I resume work today.

Barbara Jenkins

6 January 2014

Read more about the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize here


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