VI Lit Fest: The Wrap

Me (right), at the Virgin Islands Literary Festival, with Jamaica Kincaid (left) and Opal Palmer Adisa (centre).

Me (right), at the Virgin Islands Literary Festival, with Jamaica Kincaid (left) and Opal Palmer Adisa (centre).

I travelled recently to St. Croix for the first ever U.S. Virgin Islands Literary Festival, March 26th to 29th – or in my case March 26th to 28th since I left a day early, but not so early that I missed the March 28th Jamaica Kincaid keynote address. A highlight was the shout out from her (in her words, her “countrywoman” and, pinch me now, “a wonderful writer”). This is for me one of those moments (a moment in which I almost lost it) to keep because Jamaica is one of the reasons I’m even a writer writing books.

Props, by the way, to Undercover Books, which made sure that all participating writers were well represented. Pictured are books by Tiphanie Yanique, Alscess Lewis Brown, David Edgecombe, Carol Mitchell - who you might also know as founder of Caribbean Reads publishing which published my teen/YA novel Musical Youth. Musical Youth is there, and the new Dancing Nude in the Moonlight - yes that's it, right next to Kincaid's Annie John, and Oh Gad! - by me. There was, of course, lots of Kincaid; I think I also spot Gillian Royes' books. Lots of book love.

Props, by the way, to Undercover Books, which made sure that all participating writers were well represented. Pictured are books by Tiphanie Yanique, Alscess Lewis Brown, David Edgecombe, Carol Mitchell – who you might also know as founder of Caribbean Reads publishing which published my teen/YA novel Musical Youth. Musical Youth is there, and the new Dancing Nude in the Moonlight – yes that’s it, right next to Kincaid’s Annie John, and Oh Gad! – by me. There was, of course, lots of Kincaid; I think I also spot Gillian Royes’ books. Lots of book love.

As I said in an interview recorded for later posting, my discovery of her book Annie John: A Novel all those years ago was one of the things that freed me to begin claiming my voice, my choice as a writer. Her speech was a blend of sharp insights and soft delivery style. As programme manager Alscess Lewis Brown

That's the hardworking Alscess Lewis-Brown (centre) with me and Jamaica.

That’s the hardworking Alscess Lewis-Brown (centre) with me and Jamaica.

said in her introduction of the Annie John, Lucy: A Novel, My Brother, and more author, “Jamaica Kincaid always provokes some kind of response.”  On this occasion, Kincaid seemed, as she herself observed, to be speaking to the converted (“she’s beautiful,” I overheard as she took position at the front of the University of the Virgin Islands great hall). She spoke about our history of enslavement and the false concept of emancipation – false because it attempted to not only abolish the situation “but the very idea that it had ever happened…this removal of human beings from themselves”. She spoke about our beginnings and about the persistence of memory, and of what can come of trying to understand it all. “Who you are is so perplexing,” she mused, “how to make sense of anything is so perplexing; but of that dilemma …might come something beautiful.” And so we write; it’s one of the ways we try to understand. “When we write,” she said, “we are writing ourselves. We are inserting our individual existence into the larger context of things.” Though her novels mine the very personal, Jamaica insisted that there is more there. “In Annie John,” she said, “you might think I’m writing about a mother and daughter, but I’m really writing about power.” And on the subject of where our memory intersects with history – this thing that happened to us i.e. our enslavement as Africans in the ‘new world’ brought on initially by the accident of Columbus landing here, to paraphrase how she put it – she noted that “our presence offers insight into the thing that happened.” And so we write; it’s one of the ways we claim this history/our story. “Our memory is very important,” Kincaid said, “and our memory and our history has not yet been fixed or even acknowledged in its fullness. So I hope there are many people who will continue to contribute to it.” The A Small Place author knows from experience that sometimes what we write will offend but seemed to say, so be it; and to make this point she referenced the new testament letters of the prophet Paul, letters which exist whether we like him and what he has to say or not – and she doesn’t. “They won’t like what you say but they’ll vanish and your words will exist,” she said.

Jamaica’s Saturday morning presentation, and her embrace of me as a writer, was for me a striking climax to a heady, stimulating,… and draining few days as one of the event’s “featured authors” (per the brochure which listed featured authors as Kincaid, Jeffrey B. Perry, Malaika Adero, Tiphanie Yanique, me, Sharon Millar, Gillian Royes, and Muntsa Plana I Valls)featured authors.

Muntsa is from Catalonia and she was my partner as we, shepherded by Lewis-Brown, visited three schools on the 26th school shot 4

After the reading with school and education officials. That's Muntsa to my right and Auntie Janice, who delivered folk tales to her right.

After the reading with school and education officials. That’s Muntsa to my right and Auntie Janice, who delivered folk tales to her right.

– at each school they had to find a translator for her, usually from the teaching staff, and in the last case, a student who was such a natural I venture to say he has a career as a translator ahead of him if he wants it. The school visits were a joy. Muntsa, who does art therapy at home, shared children’s stories while I read from my teen/young adult novel Musical Youth. It was a long day but we managed to be refreshed enough, come evening, for the opening at Government House.

For both the school visits and the awards ceremony, my best dan-dan included accessorizing with a little something Antiguan - earrings made with the madras (designer Akua Ma'at) and  necklace crafted from the indigenous Antiguanite stone (Goldsmitty) for the opening. Taking home with me wherever I go.

For both the school visits and the opening ceremony, I accessorized with a little something Antiguan – earrings made with the madras (designer Akua Ma’at) for the school visits and necklace crafted from the indigenous Antiguanite stone (Goldsmitty) for the opening. Taking home with me wherever I go.

The lectures and small group sessions began Friday with a keynote by Tiphanie Yanique, who has gone on to award winning acclaim but as she reminded her audience, in a very personal presentation, blossomed right there in the Virgin Islands.

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Another highlight for me as an observer was the knowledge dropped by Malaika Adero, a long time publishing industry insider, during her lunch time presentation – with a packed programme, the organizers weren’t wasting time. Adero’s presentation was a masterclass on the challenges facing writers and the opportunities to be grasped in the industry, and by the industry, as it is today. She noted, for instance, the need to push for more accuracy, more inclusion, even in terms of how books are positioned in the marketplace. “We have to re-think boxes and the way that we commodify culture,” she said. She tried to tip writers in the audience, from listing diversity-friendly publishers, bookstores, journals, and programmes, to providing insight to getting positive attention for your manuscript submissions.

“What I would encourage Caribbean writers to do is not to explain your culture,” she said. “Don’t write to please publishers, dig deep and write your stories…and don’t think you have to write a particular way because you’re a Caribbean writer, be more experimental, don’t avoid who you are individually.”

I had many encounters – including a memorable one with Dr. Chenzira Davis Kahina who informed me that she’d presented my poem, Tongue Twista at a Caribbean Studies Association conference, and many, many …many Antiguans. Many of whom were urged to buy my books by my unofficial publicist, Edwina Taylor, whose main function was to get me where I needed to be but who in more ways than one went above and beyond.

My main assignments were two panels and a reading. I don’t have pictures of either as yet but will add them to this post as soon as I do. I can’t even give you a word-visual since you can’t have total recall when you’re winging it – every note I had prepared was for naught (as in not used, with the exception of one Chimamanda Adichie quote and a Harper Lee reference). I can tell you that my co-panelists were Trinidad and Tobago’s Sharon Millar, Jamaican born USVI resident Gillian Royes, and Yanique; and our panel chairs were Amelia Headley Lamont in the case of the panel on What’s in a Good Story and Nancy Morgan in the case of the panel on The Role of Children and Young Adult Literature in Shaping Society.

Millar – a Commonwealth and Small Axe award winning story writer who was releasing her much anticipated first collection, The Whale House and Other Stories – and I shared the spotlight for a joint reading that evening at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts in Fredriksted. I read from Musical Youth – the choice of what I’d be reading up in the air literally until I was getting ready to start. But it went well, I think; the combination of Cruzan rum, albeit only one glass, and two days’ worth of whirlwind (read: tired) may be skewing my perspective. If so, that’s the kind of skewing I like because I had a good time, overall; networked, fellowshipped, read, listened, laughed, even danced a little….so many good conversations and good vibes overall.

So I’ll end with a big up to the organizers and even bigger thank you, with best wishes to Valerie Combie, Alscess, and the entire hard working team, that this event  proves a promising start to a good, good thing.

Links to past appearances and media coverage.

VI Lit Fest – Where I’ll Be

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This is a book shelf promoting books by authors to be featured at the V.I. Literary Festival. I spy Annie John and Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid, books by Alscess Lewis Brown, Tiphanie Yanique, various other Caribbean authors – some of them in one book – that’s Pepperpot up in the corner, right? I’ll be at the Festival, too…yes, that’s Oh Gad! on the left. This picture makes me want to pinch myself.

Meanwhile, I’m prepping for what promises to be a busy few days – I’m booked for a couple of school visits, a couple of panels, and a book launch event with the phenomenal Sharon Millar. Seriously, pinch myself.

It’s a busy time but also continued dream fulfillment. I remain a journeying writer…or a writer, journeying.

Fill you in when I get back. Meantime, check out festival details here.

What Calypso Taught Me About Writing

Digging through some old papers, postings and such in preparation for a couple of upcoming panels at the VI Lit Fest and Book Fair, I came across this piece I wrote some time ago about the influence of calypso writing on my writing. It’s an article published locally and regionally now which was extracted from a longer piece I presented at a calypso conference a few years ago (2007). Anyway, it remains true and I felt like sharing.

I have no doubt that calypsos provided some of my first lessons in writing. While my sister and I frolicked, acting out the tunes, the lessons were taking root, as was a certain idea that stories weren’t just about people in English boarding schools or anywhere else across the water. To this child, Star Black, a cowboy in a relatable setting, was as larger-than-life as John Wayne silhouetted against the blazing desert sun. Short Shirt, the singer of the tale, elevated him to the Caribbean folk mythos as surely as John Ford, who directed Wayne in some 14 films, made the Duke inextricable from the mythos of the American west; like Wayne, he sat “tall in the saddle”.

For the child I was then, Carnival was where art lived; from the elaborate costumes to the intricate steel pan compositions to the lyricism of the calypsonians – my first introduction to creative writing. I didn’t see it for what it was then, of course; as I watched the theatre unfold on stage – for instance, King Obstinate in pig tails and diapers, as he rendered his classic Children Mêlée, it was all in good fun.

But, via these calypsos, I was introduced to literary devices I would learn to name much later. Calypso, like the Anancy and Jumbie stories that compensated for the overabundance of American and British literature, was a gateway; done right, it made for engaging and effective story telling.

Take Obsti’s classic Wet You Han’. In local parlance, Wet You Han’ is usually a warning to a rival, precursor to making good on a threat or promise. Not surprisingly, then, the song chronicles an epic battle, typical of village life back in the day, between two of Antiguan literature’s more riveting characters, Crazy Ellie and Big Foot Maude. What makes this song work is, not just the humor, but the authenticity of the setting, characters, and language. Obsti shades in the details to such a degree that we easily pictured the shop into which the fight spilled, and smelled the ‘sweet oil’ permeating the air.

Calypso provided lessons in how to play, teasingly, with language. Its use of the double entendre and pun – its passion for double meanings – is legendary. These devices are most often used to mask calypso’s favourite theme, sex. The innocent among us thought Short Shirt’s Push was about a broken down car. But worldlier people knew what the female protagonist was asking for when she demanded “push…I ain’t got the whole night”.

Of course, the power of calypso, like any good writing, is what it makes you feel. Ivena calls on our collective history to shame us into action, when she shrills, giving me goosebumps every time, “You’ve got to remember the cane fields on fire” in Remember the Pledge harkening back to a time when our ancestors stood en masse against oppression. Then there’s Short Shirt’s hard luck but defiant calypso Nobody Go Run Me: “… no dice/I ain’t gonna eat lice/I ain’t going to grow old/sitting in the cold, not me…” On bleak days this is one of the theme songs thrumming through my blood, looping through my brain. Years later, on reading Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, chronicling the misadventures of men who were in fact catching hell in the cold, the thread between the literature of calypso, and the Caribbean novel, could not be denied.

Calypso in many ways was the ‘novel’ of the masses, all the devices, themes, and key story elements deftly used by the likes of Shelly Tobitt, Marcus Christopher, and others. Take Cuthbert ‘Best’ Williams use of conflict, a critical story element, in Ivena’s now classic Old Road Fight, a song inspired by this community’s battle with hotel developers. The use of the first person point of view helps make for a sympathetic perspective while the drawing on the power of the collective, the calling out of Ma Clemmie, Destah Jah, Lovell, Zakela and the others, makes this more than an individual tale. The conflict builds, taking on epic significance. Ivena sings: “It is a holy war, a revival of black power”. So, it’s no longer about a tourist development but an ideology. “When the conch shell sound, it spread right across the land, King Court calling rebel man and rebel woman”, she sings and it is no longer a localized conflict. This is riveting storytelling, and more than that, it’s perhaps the best account of this real life happening in Antiguan modern history.

A hybrid of journalist, commentator, oracle, griot, fiction writer, and poet, the calypsonian in concert with the calypso writer sings the songs, sings the lives of the people; in the process teaching them that their lives can be the stuff of epic lore and teaching this writer a thing or two about the creative use of language.

For good measure, I’ll also share this link to my poem Da’s Calypso originally published (2007) in Calabash and as of 2014 in  Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Other Writings. Dancing 10 cover
Hint, it’s one of the other writings.

Just a (Writer) Thing

Was reading a piece in the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators Bulletin (November/December 2014 edition). It’s called The Truth about School Visits: Tips for Handling Donation Requests by Alexis O’Neill. It’s not available online, not that I could find, so I hope the author won’t mind me quoting somewhat liberally.

“As children’s authors we’re wired to give,” O’Neill writes. “It feels good when we help a school or organization…

“But authors and illustrators earn a significant portion of their income from paid appearances…

“When schools expect authors to do school visits for free, then authors struggle to sustain a living as book creators.”

O’Neill suggests that, as requests come, we need to ask ourselves several questions including how much time the appearance will take away from our writing (and, if you’re a freelance writer, I might add, from the hustle), consider the expense involved and basically if you can afford to eat that expense at the time of the request, is the request reasonable (is it an in-and-out maybe or do they expect workshop time that may eat up a few hours, not counting prep time), is it a cause you support and can afford to give to. Then, he said, you set guidelines. He quoted one writer as saying, “I always charge schools something – even if it’s $50 for gas. I do two or three of these greatly-reduced school visits a year, and I choose who gets them based on how the situation moves me. I only schedule them when it’s convenient for me and I do keep the number to three, max.”

Some reading this will dismiss this as cold; it’s not. It’s practical. Even as someone who strongly believes in volunteerism, someone who has given more donated hours than I can count over time, I had to get real with myself and say no to the things I could no longer do – including some school visits. Of course, depending on your location it may also be impractical to expect schools to pay even for gas.

The article also suggests‘trade’ conditions such as ensuring that the school library buys a copy, preferably copies, of your book (again tricky if the school doesn’t even have or is just trying to build a school library), or getting the school to participate – through online promotions and flyers – in promoting the visit and by extension your book.

Because it assumes (not necessarily incorrectly) that we, writers, are wusses when it comes to saying no, it suggests that authors with the means to do so have booking agents and/or managers to manage such requests. And, there are authors like one referenced in the article, who like many of us doesn’t have such a thing but has a friend who serves as her ‘manager’. “She doesn’t mind getting the few requests mailed to her home a year. She hands them over to me and I respond and sign her name…This way, I can truly pick and choose without the guilt.” I’m going to assume she doesn’t have people emailing her or facebooking her directly with requests. As for the in-person requests, they can be the most awkward of all. “I just say ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do that anymore.’ End of discussion. No excuses. No regrets.”

Wow. I haven’t quite mastered the “no excuses…no regrets” bit. Instead I plot ways that I can find a way to give, because, back to the beginning, it does feel good to help when we can (and if we’re being honest, there’s a promotional aspect as well, an opportunity to create awareness about our books I.e. our products and our services I.e. workshops etc). On the point of finding ways to create the opportunity you’d like to see and be a part of, I think back to the writing workshop I did in 2013 and how I asked businesses to sponsor participants so that the young people who were genuinely interested wouldn’t find themselves unable to do so due to lack of funds. My most recent stream of workshops had one business coming forward to sponsor one of the participants, their initiative not my request. Something like that might work for future school visits, if there was such a business or businesses so inclined. Because I have to say it felt really good being able to get out there and do school stops again earlier this year; I hope to do more. I hope to be able to do more.

School stop.

School stop.

But I also think more than one-off visits are needed, I do feel that in-school writing workshops would be beneficial to our students (especially when I consider that I’ve had at least one teacher reach out to me recently for tips on teaching narrative writing to his/her students); it’s one of the reasons it’s on my Jhohadli Writing Project menu of options.

Anyway, I share things of interest when I read them, here, on Wadadli Pen, on facebook, the O’Neill article is a good reminder to give where we can but to remember that we can only give so much, what we do not only has value, it also costs. I appreciated it, too, for, among other things, highlighting that it’s not a just-us thing, but, wherever you are, if you’re a working writer, just a thing…one of the many things we have to consider.

A Little Perspective

Originally posted on Wadadli Pen:

The long list of the OCM Bocas Prize was announced this weekend and an Antiguan and Barbudan writer/book/subject is on the list! 2136dd3c-42db-4ee4-841a-70fa52ac3d4cThe writer, Dorbrene O’Marde; the book, Nobody Go Run Me; the subject, Short Shirt . Maybe it will get some press here at home – whether you believe as I do that Short Shirt is the epitome of Antiguan and Barbudan calypso artistry, he is one of our cultural and calypso icons after all – whatever he does is news (right?), and Dorbrene is a well-established arts and media personality in his own right – from his days as Head of Harambee, widely acclaimed as the best of Antiguan theatre, to his current role as head and mouthpiece of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission (his profile certainly makes him news, right?). Plus Nobody Go Run Me was part of the news story that was…

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