E’quibo youth’s folkloric tale of abuse makes Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist

Kevin Garbaran

By Laurel Sutherland

Kevin Garbaran had mixed feelings about becoming a writer but when he decided to give writing a chance it rewarded him in ways he couldn’t imagine, like being shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Garbaran is the second Guyanese to be shortlisted for the prize, following Maggie Harris, who was shortlisted for the prize in 2014.

“This is the first time I entered a short story competition, which I entered for the experience and validation. When I found out that I had been shortlisted, I was in utter disbelief but when the news settled in, I got the validation I was looking for,” the 24-year-old told Sunday Stabroek during an interview.

Garbaran’s short story, titled ‘The Ol’ Higue on Market Street,’ is about a nine-year-old girl who lives in a village in the countryside, filled with rich folklore. The young girl, after hearing that a woman who lives on the same street as she, is an Ol Higue, decides to investigate the circulating rumours, even though she is terrified of the “Jumbie.”

Garbaran explained that he uses the Ol’ Higue as a metaphor for greater evils, such as domestic and child abuse. “It is a coming of age story, which includes the themes of child abuse and domestic violence but deals mainly with the nature of stories and how they can have an impact on the listener,” Garbaran further explained.

He noted that Guyana has a very rich tradition of telling stories and folktales and he wanted to capture and focus on issues that plague Guyanese society, hence the domestic abuse themes.

Garbaran first learned that he is among 22 persons shortlisted from a whopping 5,081 entries for the Short Story Prize about a month ago through an email.

“I saw the email, and when I read it, I was speechless,” he recalled. He then called one of his friends, who he would often talk to about his passion for writing and developing characters, and told her the news. It was after the excitement shown by his friend that he too became excited, as he was still in the stage of disbelief.

“After the official announcement came out, the support that I’ve received from Guyanese, personally and online, I became overwhelmed as I wasn’t expecting so many people to be supportive. I’m really thankful,” Garbaran said. He further noted that being among the 22 shortlisted persons is more than he dared hoped for and now that his story has a chance of winning, it is unbelievable. “I would definitely love to win. I really do think this story has a potential to win but there’s a lot of competition,” he ended.

‘Vital inspirations’

Garbaran, who is currently working on his first novel, was born on March 24th, 1995, to parents Ashok and Devi Garbaran and is the eldest of four brothers. He grew up in the community of Zorg, located on the Essequibo Coast, and attended Suddie Primary School, President’s College (PC) and the University of Guyana (UG), respectively.

He revealed that his childhood was one of the vital inspirations behind him becoming a writer. “Growing up on the countryside, with a big extended family, I experienced the well-known tradition of ‘Jumbie storytelling,’ which later inspired me to become a writer,” he said. He also mentioned that during his time at President’s College, which is a boarding school, he would visit his grandparents in Mahaicony, who also told him a great deal of stories, which increased his love for literature. He started writing stories from the age of six but never had the confidence to show his pieces to people other than his relatives.

Although Garbaran knew he wanted to become a writer, being the top performer of his primary school at the then Common Entrance Examinations, he found himself in the science stream in high school, despite his love for literature. “Back then, I thought that since there isn’t a lot of scope for writers in the country, the sciences would have been a better option for me,” he said.

Regardless, he graduated with eight Grade Ones and four Grade Twos and during his fifth year at the college, he earned himself a scholarship to the University of Guyana (UG), after winning the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission’s (GGMC) Science and Technology quiz. Before attending UG, however, he was awarded third best performing student at the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE) at PC.

Garbaran attributes his success to his parents, who he said always emphasised the importance of education. “I didn’t grow up in a rich family but my parents did everything they can to support my brothers and I financially and they made sure we had all the educational opportunities we wanted,” he said.

He admires the works of Arundhati Roy and Emily Brontë, which he finds very impactful.

Garbaran currently works as a part-time server at the Pegasus Hotel, so he can have time to write and be financially stable at the same time.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2,000 to 5,000 words). The prize, open to Commonwealth citizens aged 18 and over, was set up in 2012 to inspire, develop and connect writers and storytellers across the Commonwealth.

The Prize is reportedly open to writers who have had little or no work published and is particularly aimed at places with little or no publishing industry.

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