Guardian Spotlight

I want to say thanks to the Antigua Guardian for spotlighting me in its November 24th issue. In case you’re keeping track, this was the Monday after the launch of Musical Youth and somehow they have pictures from the launch. first page of articleNow that’s hustle. Of course, I’m late to this party, because I only just-just-just saw the issue and read it while walking home from the grocery store – I multi-task like that. In all seriousness, I must say I don’t remember being terribly coherent during this phone interview – I was kind of crazed prepping for the workshop and the launch, and dealing with couriers about books and just aaargh – but kudos to Dotsie Isaac-Gellizeau, I sound sane. I can’t link you the entire thing – I don’t think the Antigua Guardian issues are online –but I’ll share some excerpts:

“When I asked Joanne Hillhouse if she writes because she has to or because she has to, she understood and instantly responded, ‘Both.’ She explained that the journalist in her writes to pay her mortgage and put food in the refrigerator…As for the creative side, ‘I write because it’s just in me. The writing happens instinctively. I’m engaging with the world through my writing.’

“Hillhouse said that growing up in Antigua and ‘telling yourself you want to be a writer is a dream you have to tell yourself to wake up from.’ Her dream has become reality, though, and she said there is a lot of other talent on island. ‘Joanne Hillhouse isn’t the only writer in Antigua.’… we have our own stories. So many things to say.’

“Her part in youth development continues with Wadadli Pen. Ten years ago, as a young writer, Joanne launched the Pen, a project that encourages young writers through workshops and writing competitions. She said she really didn’t know what she was getting into, but it has turned out ot be one of the most fulfilling experience. ‘It’s hard to tell what the impact is,’ she said. ‘But I’m happy with the fact that I’m still here. People wrote and grew through it. I can’t let go because it means something to somebody.’

“According to her she went into binge writing, forfeiting sleep, and wrote Musical Youth in two weeks, barely making the deadline submission.

“‘This whole idea that we don’t have time to write is procrastination and excuse [sidebar: I think what I meant is sometimes it’s procrastination and excuse but…],’ she said. Joanne said she wrote it while doing everything else. ‘I was having so much fun hanging out with these kids that I didn’t notice…’

“Being a [Burt] finalist meant that her book was going to be published. ‘I was in the unusual position of having publishers bidding to publish it,’ she shared.

“Acceptance doesn’t come easy. Joanne shared that the rejection she still receives still hurts. ‘You feel good about something, and then you get a million rejections; but you don’t give up because you never know,’ she said.

“Her novel Dancing Nude in the Moonlight will be picked up for publishing by a Canadian publisher for its 10-year anniversary.

“‘I love music, lyrics, rhythm, and melody….’

“Little wonder Musical Youth came knocking at her door.”

second page of article

Caribbean Teens Read

Need more evidence that Caribbean teens read? Well, students at the Antigua State College were visibly psyched to  receive copies of 2014 Burt Award winning titles like my Musical Youth.

asc students

This particular group of students and their classmates were also gifted Colleen Smith-Dennis’ Inner City Girl thanks to Burt Award sponsor CODE and publishers CaribbeanReads and LMH, publishing, respectively, of Musical Youth and Inner City Girl. I hope they enjoy. After all, this series of books – created and/or boosted with the Caribbean teen in mind – is just for them.

thank you

Have you picked up your copy of Musical Youth or any of the winning titles – including ultimate winner Ad-Ziko Gegele’s All Over Again? Chances are, the teen – Caribbean or otherwise – in your life will thank you for it.

So, how do I get your books???

It’s a question I get often. I’m a writer from a small place, I’m not on bestseller lists, my promotion and marketing efforts are cash-light/labour-and-time-intensive, getting my books into the various markets can be a challenge. Correction: getting booksellers and buyers interested in stocking my books, even in Caribbean bookstores, can be a challenge. This means that while the worldwide web enables me to create awareness of my books in far flung places, it’s not always that easy for readers to get said books. I remember this one potential reader who wrote me that she lived in Africa but was visiting Trinidad, and hoped to get the book (it was Oh Gad! at the time) at one of the bookstores there. I hit the email trying to figure out if any of them had stocked it as I have done my best, with limited resources, to lobby bookstores across the Caribbean and beyond – email to face-to-face, where possible (though I usually have to work myself up to the latter because it’s just not my personality…but in the interest of the book, I try to make myself get over it and do what I need to do). It didn’t look good (read: no response) and I even tried to figure out how to get a copy to her via one of the Antigua booksellers – I mean we were in the same hemisphere for crying out loud. In the end it didn’t work out, I think. Opportunity missed. I was frustrated. I had a publisher, I had reader interest but not the pull to get the book where it needed to be, even if that was right here in the Caribbean where I live and write.

I’m not knocking the bookstores, there are a million and one authors, and a handful of authors that are going to be in every marketplace, and then there are the rest of us… really just wanting to hunker down and tell our stories…but putting in the time and employing different strategies, trying to build our brand and hopefully sell more books in more places. Which is why though I’m all about the indies and the small businesses, me, and authors like me on the come up, can’t deny that (problematic as they are) the online retailers have made it possible for some of these readers in far flung places who would not otherwise be able to get our books to get our books.I can’t but be grateful for that. As much as possible, though, you’ll see the Indiebound option alongside some of my books, as it’s an online connection to local bookstores.

And whenever a reader reaches out with that question, how do I get your books, I always encourage them to ask at their local bookstore. If it’s there great, if it’s not there then maybe reader interest will prompt the buyers or owners of that particular bookstore to stock it. Readers can make a world of difference; which is why for a writer like me, reader buzz via online reviews is so critical; and part of that buzz is you whispering in your local bookseller’s ear, if you like the books and think others where you are would to. They’ll stock it if it makes business sense – demand, supply.

I’ve recently been engaged in conversation with a lady I met at a writers’ conference a couple years ago. She was very interested in Caribbean literature and was, as I remember, presenting a paper on Jamaica Kincaid. She ended up buying a copy of Oh Gad! and posting a really boss online reader review. When she contacted me recently it was to congratulate me on the release of MUSICAL_YOUTH_Nov1 Musical Youth, and find out how she could get it while supporting the indie bookstores. She was a conscientious buyer, aware of the impact the big online retailers have had on the brick and mortar book stores, especially the small ones. Her options, as presented to her, by me, ordering directly from the publisher, which is an Indie publisher; ordering it through her local bookstore or encouraging her local bookstore to stock it. Meanwhile, I let my publisher know of her interest and encouraged them to reach out to the bookstores in her area; a long shot but still worth a shot, right.

The diligence on the part of this reader – her insistence that she would work around the online option, including pushing it at her area bookstore, ordering directly not just for herself but another reader she thought would be interested – is the kind of thing you can’t buy. And that’s one of the reasons I’m blogging about it. As writers, we try to tell the best stories we can; but that’s not enough, not to sell, in this crowded marketplace. Reader interest, reader loyalty, reader advocacy supported by the efforts of me and my publisher are invaluable assets and inasmuch as I have that by any measure, I am grateful. This writing career is in a lot of ways like a small business that I’ve had to build from the ground up; I’m still building and readers like the one mentioned in this blog – readers like you – make a world of difference. Thank you…and keep asking…and, hey, add your local bookstore in the comments section, and we’ll follow up on this end as well.

So, remember that beating…

I remember once I was waiting, in the hallway at a school, to read. The kids were being called to assemble. Yes, I would be reading to the whole school – read: shouting words to an entire school full of shuffling, distracted, uninterested, baking-in-the-hot-Caribbean-morning-sun kids. I would have to read something performance-worthy, only I’m not a performer. Anyway, while distracted by that, I heard a steady beat….and it took my brain a minute to process that it was a beating, or beatings, taking place behind the closed door of the principal’s office. At least that’s what my brain figured it was; instinct and memory, and no concrete evidence to dispute it. I felt sick. A combination of nerves and just being around something that though part of the routine of school life in Antigua, a routine I had become familiar with as a student years before, left me feeling queasy. I left the hallway, intent on leaving the school altogether, I think.

I’ve been squeamish around beatings since I was a child, and, as for my own beatings, I don’t have fond stories to tell the way some of my peers do. Oddly I’m not completely opposed to corporal punishment, I just grew up in a world where it seems it was dispensed so indiscriminately and so often, I don’t have the stomach for it. Quite recently, I heard children screaming and froze for a half-a-how-long before my brain processed that the screaming was laughter…breathe, no one was getting a beating.

If you’re Caribbean and you’re reading this, you’re probably shaking your head and choopsing by this point at my weak heart.

I suppose sensitivity to such things is part of the writer’s curse. It imprints.

There are brutal moments in The Boy from Willow Bend but it’s the epic school beating remembered in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight that seems most relevant here. It’s one I bore witness to as a primary school student that I’ve never been able to shake, that one administered by the mother who came to the school with the black leather belt in a brown paper bag. A part of me half-suspects that beating traumatized me more than it did the actual recipient (huh, recipient, like it’s a gift)…after all, I’m the one who had total recall of it enough to write it, needing to write it, without romanticizing it, as we do childhood things, in order to exorcize it. *SPOILER ALERT* There is a bit, though only a wee bit, of ‘old school Caribbean style discipline’, mostly off the page, in Musical Youth, written in a way that felt organic and authentic and yet tamer than that scene in Dancing and other scenes I’ve written and published. Yet one editorial note described these moments as “quite cruel” in a way that caused me to pause and re-think what was normal to me and how I might need to leap a little bit further to help the reader appreciate the context. Though I didn’t agree it was “quite cruel”. I’ve seen quite cruel acts; if not in my home exactly then certainly in the communities I was a part of growing up. Musical Youth may as well be the Sound of Music by comparison.

All of that said, a recent case here which has resulted in the death of a girl and the incarceration of her grandmother should prompt some soul searching on our parts re our approach to discipline. The one-size-fits-all spare the rod mantra has become worn and one dimensional. And in fact one of the things I like about Musical Youth, an essentially happy book, is the intergenerational relationships – Shaka’s interactions with the adults in his life especially, a sharp contrast to Zahara’s experiences. Though I hope readers don’t come away seeing Zahara’s Granny Linda as a villain. She isn’t. Just another mother/mother-figure trying to do her best. Oddly, I also understand her type – like Tanty in Oh Gad! when she thought her charge was stealing. When some, granted not all, Caribbean mothers intone “spare the rod spoil the child” there is no joy or glee in it, but there is a keen sense of the responsibility to raise this child into someone who will not steal, will not kill, will do right. It’s like that scene in Survivor’s Remorse where the mother asks her son, an NBA star trying to salvage his wholesome reputation, how he expects her to apologize for “whooping” him (which she had boasted of publicly, hence the need to salvage his reputation) when they both agree that he turned out to be the person he is, a person they agree is not only a successful person but also a good person, because of how she raised him. Mothers like this are willing to be the bad guy to make what they hope will become a good person. For many of them, this is the only way. I don’t agree that this is the only way. It’s a complicated issue; I believe discipline is needed (that sometimes you have to be okay with your kid hating you – and no, that doesn’t have to mean hitting them; some days they’ll hate you just for breathing but you’re not here to be their friend) and, at the same time, I guess I’m one of those who thinks tough love must be balanced with compassion and communication and creative approaches. But what do I know? Seriously, what do I know? If I had all this stuff figured out, I’d have absolutely nothing to write about.

I will say I think it’s a good thing that with programmes like the friendly schools initiative, we are re-thinking our approaches to discipline here in the Caribbean. As for that other matter, death under these circumstances is the kind of thing, no matter what I witnessed and experienced growing up, that I never thought would happen here, and I hope it draws a line in the sand for us, one never to be crossed again.

I’ll end with this apology; I’m sorry, I really didn’t expect this post to get so heavy…it just kind of went there. It really was just supposed to be a re-telling of the time I almost ran away from a beating that wasn’t even mine. The anti-climax of that story is that the teacher caught up with me, brought me back, I did the reading, and the shuffling, distracted, uninterested, baking-in-the-hot-Caribbean-morning-sun students were predictably unimpressed. Some days it’s like that.

Workshop Activity – Going Forward

My first workshop leader (ever, well beyond writing classes and mentorship during my time at UWI by Mervyn Morris) was Olive Senior at the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute (University of Miami). Recently, I came across this tweet she did plugging the CODE workshop I facilitated just last month:

olive senior (3)

I decided to keep it for sentimental reasons.

Workshops can be tough but they should push you to push yourself, I think. The tone of the workshop may vary depending on the facilitator-style but there should be growth. I hope I continue to grow every time I lead one or participate in one; yes, there’s learning to be done on both sides of the relationship. I’m happy (and relieved) that participants in the CODE workshop seem to agree that it was a positive growth experience. See some of their comments on my performance review page (workshop section).

I’d like to use this opportunity, since we’re talking about workshops, to plug both my coaching and facilitation services. Under my own steam, I’d like to continue these kinds of sessions, for a fee (yes, unlike the CODE workshop which was free, I will need to charge a reasonable participant fee going forward), maybe once a month if not more. So, if resident in Antigua (for now, in time I’m sure we can have people skyping in to sessions – as for coaching, I can work with you wherever you are), a writer or budding writer, interested in workshopping a work in progress or simply flexing your literary muscles, email subject line ‘Jhohadli Writing Project’ to be put on the mailing list for future workshop activity. And if you know anyone who might be interested, please share.

With Thanks

I don’t have official pictures as yet, but I just wanted to take a moment to say thanks to the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Committee for selecting me as the 2014 recipient of the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Award. Thank you seems inadequate when I consider the legacy of Tim Hector, a man who was investigative journalist, philosopher, social and political commentator, sports analyst, teacher, politician, political activist, and among many other things, the man behind the influential Outlet newspaper and its must-read Fan the Flame column.TimHector I don’t feel like I’ve earned this yet, if at all, ever..but I accept it with thanks and a commitment to try to do my best to live up to what it represents.

I was happy to have some members of my family there and some friends when the award was presented by Hector’s widow Jennifer.

Tim Hector Award

Here I am with friend, Marcella (right), thanks to whom I have these initial visual mementos, and Fayola Jardine (centre), who interviewed me and read the citation (which I’ll share with you if and when I get her permission to do so).

with Marcella and Fayola

For more on the life and times of Tim Hector, a good read is Paul Buhle’s A Caribbean Radical’s Story.