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JaWS and JAMCOPY to Award $1M in Prizes to Jamaican Writers

The Lignum Vitae Awards: The Una Marson, Vic Reid and Jean D'Costa prizes

Potentially endangered is one way to describe the lignum vitae, a tree renowned for its medicinal and mechanical applications. This wood of life was once in great demand in shipping yards worldwide for its strength and durability. These are considerable shoes to fill for the eponymously named Lignun Vitae Writing Awards, particularly in a country where writing awards are themselves a potentially endangered species.

Striding in bravely, despite the considerable shoe size, is the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards: a composite of three cash prizes for authors – the Una Marson Award for adult literature, the Vic Reid Award for young adult (YA) literature and the Jean D’Costa Award for children’s literature – totalling a whopping $1,000,000. The Una Marson award is valued at a sizeable $500,000, while the Vic Reid and Jean D’Costa awards are a substantial $250,000 each.

First awarded in 1993, the Una Marson and Vic Reid prizes were staged biennially until 2006 by the National Book Development Council with the aid of the National Commercial Bank and the last Una Marson awardee was Kei Miller for his novel The Same Earth. The Una Marson and Vic Reid awards were interrupted since 2006 due to financial constraints. Now, the Jamaican Writers Society (JaWS) and the Jamaican Copyright Licensing Agency (JAMCOPY) are pumping fresh life into the literary scene.

Dr. Velma Pollard'I believe JaWS and JAMCOPY will be able to continue what the National Book Council initiated,' says Dr. Velma Pollard, renowned writer and speaker. 'Since money was the main concern they should be better able to sustain it.'

Sustenance is indeed the name of the game. According to their objectives the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards aim to become 'a fecund source for indigenous literature that will serve to enrich the lives of all Jamaicans.'

Pollard also pointed out that the awards are also a way of celebrating some of the countries great writers. 'The legacy of Una Marson and Vic Reid are worth celebrating, as is the inspiration provided by Jean D’Costa,' explained Pollard.

And so the awards are determined to honour great Jamaican writing, both past and present.

Importantly, the awards are more than an act of celebration. Professor Mervyn Morris, Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and a former recipient of the Una Marson Award describes writing awards as a form of recognition and reward, adding that only 'for a minority of entrants, they may serve as incentives to complete a project.'Professor Mervyn Morris is one of the recipients of the Una Marson Award

This incentive is part of the vision driving the Jamaican Writers Society. Speaking at the launch of the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards which took place on February 10, 2015, JaWS president, Tanya Batson-Savage, said that writing prizes provide a buffer to the writer, who can then have a space to create without thinking about basic necessities such as food.

The Lignum Vitae Writing Awards have arrived in timely fashion to help fill the unsatisfying hole of compensation in Jamaican literary pursuits. In truth, aside from the annual Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) Creative Awards Ceremony, there has been a dearth of cash prizes available to writers of literature on this island.

Certainly our writers have been praised and appreciated by national awards like the Musgrave medal and the Norman Manley Award for Excellence in Literature, but these awards are not based in competition. National competitive prizes, cash prizes, are few and far between for writers and are largely restricted to the promotional activities of private sector companies. But JaWS and JAMCOPY are trying to change that.

Dr. Michael Bucknor, Head of the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona says, '[The awards] will go a long way to validate the work of writers and to provide recognition for their creative efforts. Many writers will be able to . . . expand their readership through the promotional possibilities afforded by winning a prize.'

Many writers have benefited from these possibilities. Professor Morris and Kei Miller are only two examples. Previous winners of the Vic Reid award, Pamela Mordecai and Hazel D. Campbell, have also enjoyed the publicity and publishing opportunities provided by the competition.

As Bucknor points out, the awards come at a time when Jamaican writers are basking in much international attention.

'We are riding a wave of international success because of the reception of a few of our younger writers. This re-vitalized award will help to build on this success and provide tangible ways of helping in the development of our writers,' Bucknor said.

The very tangible cash prizes awarded by this competition will go a long way toward easing the burden of poor compensation that many writers face, and remove the banner of starving artist  – a concept that stretches as far back as the 18th century, and which is reasserting itself with newfound vigour in the information technology age.

In a Guardian article that examined the financial realities of bestselling authors, author and editor Robert McCrum spoke to the dire situation which many writers face as earning potential from copyrighted material is eroded by free online acccess.

'Copyright is the bone marrow of Western intellectual tradition,' Mcrum says, explaining that with the advent of widely accessible, digitalized text it has become progressively harder for writers to live solely off the profits from work they create.

JAMCOPY established a Cultural Fund in 2011, from which the funds for the Lignum Vitae Awards come, as a part of the struggle to support the creative industries. The JAMCOPY Cultural Fund provides direct support to the development of music and the literary and visual arts in Jamaica.

JAMCOPY’s General Manager Carol Newman described the creation of the awards as an act of serendipity. Certainly, the establishment of JAMCOPY’s Cultural Fund and the interest of JaWS in creating the awards were a classic example of preparation meeting opportunity.

Chairman of JAMCOPY Mark Thomas spoke to the possibility of offering larger prizes in the future. 'It is not a lot of money," Thomas said, "but it is an important start.'

Thomas' statement echoes the sentiments of NCB in 1993 at the launch of the Una Marson and Vic Reid awards. Claiming that the amount requested for the awards was ‘much too modest’ the bank then offered cash prizes that far exceeded the expectations of the petitioners.

In this era of increasing free access to digital information and in a society which often overlooks its own creative talent, the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards are a pledge of good faith to the continued viability of the writing industry. Starving artists need starve no more – biennially, at least – as this lignum vitae can lend its strength to those who need it most.

As for the likelihood of the awards living up to their namesake, Professor Morris is purely optimistic in his thoughts on the future of the Lignum Vitae awards, saying only: 'Let’s hope for the best.'

The awards are open to Jamaican writers at home and in the diaspora as well as authors of other nationalities who are Permanent Residents to Jamaica. The awards accept manuscripts only which must be accompanied by an entry fee. Entries will be judged based on originality, craftsmanship, clarity of expression and use of language, and shortlisted applicants will be announced in September 2015 with the awards ceremony in October of the same year. The deadline for submission is June 30, 2015.