Q&A with CODE Burt Award finalists: Diana McCaulay


A report from Loop.

CODE and the Bocas Lit Fest recently announced the finalists for the sixth CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature.

Diana McCaulay (Jamaica), Jeanelle Frontin (Trinidad and Tobago) and Tamika Gibson (Trinidad and Tobago) are the three finalists for the coveted award which will be announced on May 2 at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

Each week, we’ll feature a Q&A with each of the finalists where they’ll talk more about work, what inspires them, young adult literature in the region and CODE Burt Award.

In our final installment, we sat down with Diana McCaulay.

Where did your passion for the environment begin?

DM: I went to a beach I used to love as a child, and it had become a garbage dump. I felt ashamed and wanted to do something about it, so I started reading about the environment. The more I learned, the more concerned I became. After about two years I started the Jamaica Environment Trust and eventually left my job to be a full-time environmentalist.

How did your experiences as a young adult shape your writing and the themes you explore?

DM: I was lucky enough to grow up enjoying many different experiences outdoors – hiking, swimming, snorkelling, riding horses, so I always loved nature, particularly the sea.  I think connection to place is part of identity, so I’m interested in exploring what we lose when we lose connection to the natural world and to our home place.

What were some of the books you enjoyed as a young adult reader and a few of your favourite authors?

DM: The first book that made me want to be a writer was ‘Black Beauty’ by Anna Sewell. I cried when Ginger died, and I wanted to be able to write books that moved people the way I was moved. I loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis too, and Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories.

As a writer, what, in particular, drew you to the Young Adult genre?

DM: Reading has been such a passion for me, such a sanctuary for all of my life, that I wanted to play a part in influencing young Caribbean people to read. And I think books for young adults present an interesting challenge – to tell a cracking story with sufficient literary elements, enough depth and sophistication, to interest adults as well. I love crossover YA books.

Tell us a little about your decision to combine fiction writing and young adult literature with your passion for the preservation of the environment.

DM: Well, although I would say my books are all very strongly grounded in place, ‘Daylight Come’ is the first one with an overtly environmental theme – climate change. I think climate breakdown – what’s called The Disruption in my book – is an existential threat for the Caribbean and I wanted to write about it, to give an outlet to my own escalating concerns, but more importantly, to move people with a story. When I write about the environment, I also want to celebrate the magnificence and complexity of the natural world, as well as mourn what we’re losing so very quickly.

‘Gone to Drift‘ shows a striking comparison between the care shown by fishermen of old and the lack thereof in modern-day techniques.  What would you say to those who posit that modern approaches were borne of necessity or demand and that the “old ways” are now obsolete?

DM: The “new ways” have resulted in two-thirds of the world’s fisheries being overfished or at maximum yield. Jamaica’s waters have long been described as the most over-fished in the Caribbean. As a child, I saw and loved our living coral reefs and it is devastating to see what they have become.

Your novels and short stories have been shortlisted for and have won numerous awards. Some may consider these accolades success. How do you define success? How do you personally measure your success?

DM: I’m not sure writers are inclined to feel successful. I think many of us tend to be creatures of self-doubt and hyper-criticism. For myself, I’ve noticed how quickly I move any goal posts I set – before my first book was published, I defined success as just to hold a published book I had written in my hand. Then “success” became one shortlisting. Then a certain amount of sales. Then a prize. Then a higher amount of sales. So I learned to laugh at myself and these artificial and external measures of a creative work’s value. I try not to think about success. Of course, I want my books to do well and win prizes, and I still find rejections hard, but I try to focus on connecting with readers of the books I’ve already written and thinking about the next one I’ll write.

Would you mind sharing a short synopsis of your recent novel, ‘Daylight Come’, and the main ideas you explore in it?

DM: What if it became too hot to go outside in the day? What if we couldn’t farm? Build a road or a house? What if there were constant storms and droughts? What if the day could actually kill you? What kind of societies would we have? These are the questions ‘Daylight Come’ asks.

‘Daylight Come’ is set on the fictional island of Bajacu, where it’s so hot that everyone sleeps in the day and works at night. The protagonist, Sorrel, is a young woman who just can’t sleep in the day, and when she and her mother must leave their current home due to rising sea levels, they try to gain access to a gentler climate in the mountains, although it is rumoured that elites control the high places and kill anyone who tries to intrude. Their journey is full of dangers and agonizing choices and the book explores the bond between mother and daughter, the tension between young and old when resources are scarce, and the universal longing for a safe, nurturing home place.

With the CODE Burt Award now in its final year, without the usual regional publishing/distribution deal attached, have you considered getting your work into the school system regardless? How important is it to you to have young people read you?

DM: Yes, I’ve tried to get my books into the school system and onto reading lists – success has been limited. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s very important to me that my books are read by young people and talked about by them.

To what extent do you see prizes like the CODE Burt Award as integral to the development of the Caribbean young adult reading and writing market, and the literary landscape, in general?

DM: The CODE Burt prize got books into Caribbean schools and libraries, and therefore into the hands of teachers and students, so such prizes are vital. Book distribution and availability remain somewhat challenging in the Caribbean.

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