Empath

untitledRandom_Michelle is at it again challenging us to keep our story writing limbs nimble. I saw this picture of the boy and I had …nothing. But then a few things coalesced (random things: things on my mind, some fan fic I read once, and this poem by November Rain in response to the same prompt) and this inner monologue from the perspective of the boy’s mother came out. It’s spontaneous and unedited (except for cutting for length) as these prompt responses are.

He comes to me crying again. School is a war zone of hurled insults to which I send him each day with only the armor of my love. They say boys must be tough, but he has a sensitive soul and here that is a crime. He must toughen up. Even my own mother says so. She was the same way with me. If I brought her any hurt, she wanted to know if I hurt back. It was how she could be sure I would survive life. But I want him to do more than survive. I want him to live. I want him to feel the fullness of an open heart, to dance, and laugh, and touch the people he loves, to be gentle with fragile things. I want him to be human. I want to tell him that I see him. Not only the little boy he is now with tears in his eyes and confusion as to what it is about him that stirs such scorn but the giant he will someday be. I tell him that the giant is strong but has a tender heart, is careful even when walking so as not to disturb the earth. I tell him he’ll be so big and strong someday that people will see him and be afraid, but that he will be a giant fed on love and acceptance of everything, of everyone, of their right to be as they are. I tell him that he is meant to change lives just by being an example of goodness in the world. And I wipe his tears as he smiles, wanting to believe me, squinting, trying to picture the shadow of this future giant he is destined to be but not able, quite yet, to see.

Reflections, On Publishing and Persevering

Was doing some house cleaning over on my fiction page just now and found myself musing on the publishing credits that were the biggest gets for me at the time that I got them and why.

Like, there’s BIM in which I published What’s in a Name in 2015. BIMThis was a story inspired initially by a boy I observed while my brain idled pre-church at the christening of my last godchild. It really became, I think, a story about the way young people in a society both conscious of class and sometimes presumptive and precise in its assumptions can be pigeon-holed by the things they can’t control and how they can emerge into who they are in spite of …because I see good things in Big Head’s future. It’s also meant to be my humorous take on the labels people –and especially boys – in our society carry from the playground right in to adulthood. I heard someone answer to “Crablouse” once and that stuck with me…once I stopped laughing. Big Head is a reflection of that rough grinding that is a rite of passage coming of age in the Caribbean, how it can make or break, but doesn’t have to define you. That it was published by BIM was a gleeful moment for me in spite of BIM being a non-paying market because it felt like a measure of acceptance in to the Caribbean canon – more than a decade after the publication of my first book. I’d been rejected by BIM several times, nothing new there, though being rejected by a publication you subscribed to, a publication that hosted a panel you were once a part of

BIM 2008

Panelists at the BIM Symposium (2008) Celebrating Caribbean Women Writers.

– admittedly after inquiring how you could become a part of said panel, not as a result of them being blown away by your writing – was a particularly sharp brand of humbling. Something Big Head could no doubt relate to after the way his first crush do him. BIM was, for Caribbean writers, more than a first crush, as the literary elder that had discovered some of the region’s brightest literary lights including none less than Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. BIM is such a big deal that the house of founder/editor the late Frank Collymore was an essential stop of the bus tour held during the BIM lit fest which I was invited to in 2016.

Bernice McFadden

With American author Bernice McFadden and Jamaican author A-dZiko Gegele at the BIM lit fest and book fair…not at Frank Collymore house though…that’s the Barbados PM’s official residence Ilaro Court.

So, yeah, it felt special to finally see myself on its pages, after I’d had to practice some self-care by withdrawing from submitting and being rejected for a little while to catch my breath. I never stopped reading though; it is a damn good publication.

I’m also always a little bit extra thrilled when something completely out of my wheelhouse gets picked. With Grace getting honourable mention in the Desi Lounge contest and, in part because of that, attracting the attention of a publisher and now en route to publication as a children’s picture book is an example of this – I had never written a fairytale (or as I call it a faerie’s tale) before. I had also never attempted noir before deciding to submit one, the Cat has Claws, to Akashic’s Monday’s are Murder series. I remember I was on a bus and that this story was inspired by the heat, and that beyond that I wanted to craft a story that acknowledged the tropes of noir – the sense of mystery, the murder, the cynicism, the femme fatale etc. – without necessarily being bound by them and which was, at the same time, distinctively Caribbean and specifically Antiguan. I used a house I remembered, a face I knew, a personality type that was as familiar to me as the streets of Ottos, and I used the heat that was killing me that day. Having that accepted felt like I’d experimented,  stretched my wings, and pulled it off. Plus, I could now claim a publishing credit with one of the best indie presses in the business.

Of course, every short story, or story, is a bit of experiment for me – grappling with not only story (i.e. what is this about) but form (i.e. technique): the way I attempted fiction as a narrative poem with At Sea, or played around with point of view and unreliable narrators and structure in Amelia and Teacher May, or did the timeline dance while digging in to uncomfortable territory in Genevieve. If the world is my MFA programme then every acceptance is a “well done, Joanne”, and every non-acceptance a “do better”.

For that reason, I’ll end with mention of my first two off island fiction publishing credits. See, I write from and of Antigua, and getting my work out there was/is no easy task. One of my early targets, since about 1998 was The Caribbean Writer. As with BIM, it felt significant getting in to this one, which, while it didn’t have the long literary pedigree of BIM, was an established, peer-reviewed, international, literary journal, and, at the time the only one my research had turned up. I didn’t make the cut until 2004, with both a poem (Ah Write!) and the story Rhythms. Rhythms came to me one night during a pan bomb competition on the streets of St. John’s City – the bomb competitions were contests held during a panorama lull when pan was on the tail end of a downswing or the very early days of an upswing thanks to the pan yards opening schools of pan programmes to train and excite the next generation. I remember watching a boy play and how he gave his whole body over to it while the older dudes just kind of played in a serviceable, decidedly less animated way. Something about that contrast appealed to me…and then as well the dynamics and tensions within a family. I was happy that I was able to convincingly write the world of pan.

But my very first outside credit was in the Jamaica Observer lit arts section. That same year, 2004, which coupled with the publication of my first two books The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, left me feeling like I was getting some traction, that hell yeah (!) I was a writer. And that was a paying market (though not big money). It was about love and loss in a hurricane, and it was inspired by so many things from hurricanes I’d been through to a story one interview subject (wearing my journalism hat) had told me about his experience of the 1974 earthquake, which was significant in Antigua (though I don’t remember it, I would have been barely a year then, I grew up hearing about it). Anyway, that publishing credit was both bitter and sweet: this writing life lifts you up only to knock you down and test your mettle and commitment to the journey. The editor, now deceased, and considered quite venerable in Caribbean literary circles, had expressed interest in both the Martin, Dorie, and Luis story and a poem, but when, after sometime, I asked if they still had plans to publish the poem, he snapped back “your poetry is not up to the standard of your fiction”. I mean, that’s probably true, fiction is my first love (it’s what I’ve read the most, studied, worked hardest at, truly enjoy and feel passionate about) but I continue to work to make both better, and I learned that I was well and truly all in as a writer because not even the harshest rejection has deterred me from submitting and submitting again (including poetry). Knock on wood, through many more rejections, through books going out of print, through some people in the industry being sometimes shady, and other disappointments, that’s still true.

So, check out my non-book fiction here and share…which of your publishing credits, if you’re a writer, mean what to you and why?

Just Thinking on Some Things

When I hear of rape and ‘domestic’ violence cases, I think of my nieces and my nephews – what I want to protect them from (but can’t), who I hope they’ll be (but can’t determine). And my love and concern for them make it more and more difficult for me to move past what’s been done (or reported) simply because the person makes award winning movies or infectious music, has charisma or a winning smile. It’s not enough to make me forget all for a little wine up or wind down as the case may be.

I think of the ones close to home and further afield – my nieces and nephews and others I have mentored, I mean, and how for being a little smart-mouthed they might get clocked and even talk themselves around to believing they deserved it; or how overindulging at the wrong party may turn them in to the latest internet scandal with a long road to recovery and reclaiming their body and their reputation ahead of them.

Is it possible to separate the art from the artiste? Yes, but I swear sometimes these artistes don’t make it easy. We all make mistakes, we all have pasts; but some things cross lines for me…especially when there’s no acknowledgment, no attempt at ownership of the wrong.  My appreciation for the art may even still be there but it is tinged by this extra information my brain, my conscience can’t dismiss. While I may or may not know the person who was raped or hit  – I’ll still know it was a person, and I’ll know it could have been one of my own. That knowing makes it difficult to look away. I feel like while we must allow room for redemption, we also shouldn’t find it so easy to shrug certain things off and just go ‘long as though they’d never happened. And if we can, it makes me wonder about how much we really value our girls; and the boys we are raising and mentoring to do better.

Just thinking on some things.

New Moko, Game Changer

The latest issue of Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters is, as usual, a cover to cover read. Kudos to the editors. High quality content and clean layout has made Moko a must-read for me as far as online (or offline) Caribbean literary journals go. I usually end up clicking through everything in the intended order: art to poetry to fiction to non-fiction.

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My favourites this issue in an order of my own selective making (most enjoyed down) are:

“An Exercise in Empathy”: An Interview with Diana McCaulay (interview)

Angels on the Southside by JR Mahung (poetry)

Poems by E O Kean

Poems by Shara McCallum

The Panchayat by Motilal Boodoosingh (fiction)

“From Many Sides” and “Ernestine and Me” by Olivia McGilchrist (visual art)

For Stepha by Racquel Henry (poetry)

“Navigating Caribbean Visual Language Through Digital Art Mediums” by Natalie McGuire (non-fiction)

Go Hide Your Joy, Boy by Celia Sorhaindo (poetry)

Timothy by Kirk Budhooram (fiction)

Juggling by Leesa Fenderson (non-fiction)

Poems by Kay Bell

Review of Nicholas Laughlin’s “The Strange Years of My Life” by Yaniré S. Díaz Rodríguez (non-fiction)

Sparrow come back by Jeffrey Dunn (poetry)

My story Game Changer can also be found in the issue.  It’s my second time being published with them; first time was my brief poem Children Melee and in Issue 7’s special issue in which one writer recommends another, I recommended Brenda Lee Browne

Check out all of Moko issue 9; you won’t regret it. Swing back by and let me know what you think of Game Changer.

For more of my journalled or anthologized stories, check here, AND pick up a copy of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and other Writings.

Puerto Rico’s First Gold

Mónica Puig has defeated Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 to win the Gold Medal in the women’s single tennis competition at the Rio Olympics. An emotional Puig wept through the singing of Puerto Rico’s national anthem, “La Borinqueña,” played for the first time at the Olympics Games since Puerto Rico began participating in […]

via Puerto Rico’s Mónica Puig Wins Olympic Gold Medal in Tennis — Repeating Islands

Springtime Friends in September

Response to another RandomMichelle prompt. Fair warning for adult language.

Margot had never had a favourite number, like her best friend Alana. Her number was seven. She does have a least favourite. It’s 40.
“I love it,” Alana said.
“Yes, but we long ago established that you’re not normal,” Margot responded.
“I think you’ve got that backward. You’re the one who said she feels like an alien. I’m perfectly human.”
Margot cocks open an eye lid, closes it hastily and covers her eyes with her arm for good measure. Light is her enemy.
“Aaargh aging sucks. My body feels like it’s mutating daily. I have enjoyed 20/20 vision my entire life. Now light hurts and my body hurts on waking, my limbs, my joints, I think even my damn hair follickles are rebelling against this damned decade.”
“It’s not so bad,” Alana responded. “It’s so liberating to be able to say exactly what you think.”
“Oh fuck you.”
“See what I mean.”
Rolling her eyes hurt but it had to be done.
Lying there, the fabric of the couch both hot and itchy against her skin, Margot allowed herself to feel thoroughly sorry for herself. She may have even squeezed out a few tears. She felt like one of those alien things in V who wore human like a skin over something greener, more reptilian, darker, and that greener reptilian thing had no love for humanity. In fact, it seemed determined to suck the life out of it. Suck the life out of her.
Alana kicked her just then, right in the shin, from the other end of the couch where she sat knees drawn up.
“What? I didn’t even say anything!”
“I can read your face.”
She cocked an eyebrow, seeing nothing but knees, hers and Alana’s, just like when they were girls.
“You can’t even see my face.” And, so what if she sounded around five years old.
“That’s how well I know you.”
Margot sighed. “Well, I’m glad somebody does, because I barely know myself these days.”
“Aww, chin up, boo. This too shall pass. You’ll go to the doctor, up your prescription, and be good as new.”
She supposed that was true. This wasn’t permanent – but what if it is, a small devilish part of her brain, insisted.
“…But it isn’t,” she said, aloud.
“That’s right, it isn’t,” Alana said. “Soon you’ll be as good as new… ish.”
And Margot genuinely laughed at that. Alana was right; she had life. That was worth getting up for; even if her body was letting her down like a little bitch.
But trust Alana not to leave well enough alone. “And look at the bright side, we’re winning; all that’s left to overcome before death is menopause, and that’s not for another …five years at least.”
Margot didn’t even bother opening her eyes.
“Again, and sincerely, with everything in me, Fuck You, Alana.”
“Love you, too, boo.”

Life’s a Beach

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Beach pic from a Barbuda day trip a few years ago. Barbuda is Antigua’s sister island. (JCH)

I’ve been rediscovering our beaches of late – in part because of a turn in my life that has made me want to re-discover the simple pleasures, the things that bring me joy. I am reminded of how lying on my back on the water covered by the sky can also bring me peace while quieting my mind and bringing some healing to my body.

I lived on another Caribbean island for a time. It, too, had beautiful beaches. But I was surprised to discover in my time there that the concept of all beaches being public was not a Caribbean wide right. I was happy, at this discovery, that I came from a place where I had never had to question that. Even if I would never get around to getting to all 365 beaches, I could get to them if I could; such was my right…as I understood it.

I am reminded that the erosion of rights doesn’t happen in grand sweeps. That’s why freedom and Independence demand that we keep our eyes open if we want either to be more than ceremony. It’s a subtle thing. It doesn’t begin with physical fences either (though I was there, reporting, in the late 90s when such a barrier stretching out in to the sea was torn down by locals). It begins with the seed of an idea that in the name of jobs, you must sacrifice this; that nobody came all this way to be subjected to your presence on their beach. The invisible “don’t disturb the tourist” sign. On the surface of it, concepts like “tourism is everybody’s business” are good ideas; a reminder that the fate of our main industry is our collective responsibility. But when creating a welcoming environment for our visitors morphs to privileging our visitor, over ourselves, the erosion of this common understanding, this perceived right, this shared knowledge that our beaches are ours to access and enjoy at our pleasure, no “please, may we”, accelerates.

And we begin to feel ourselves being corralled in-land (as one friend put it to me), directed to the muddy back entrance of our own paradise feeling like second class citizens (as one media personality was heard to complain). Within these expressed sentiments, there is a sense of elitism – whether of race or class (can be debated) – at play. A fence on this beach, a locked gate on this other beach, security guards that look like us shooing us like fowl from our own beaches. Well, how are we to feel about this?

Let me be clear. While this article and the debate it stirred makes this topical (here in Antigua and Barbuda), this isn’t a new concern of mine (just ask my friends), nor are my musings political (in intention or otherwise), and as someone who has worked in environmental education, I am keenly aware of and concerned about the beach litter problem (but barring us from our beaches is not the solution). This post is reflective of a soul-deep unsettledness at conversation about which line on which beach we are permitted to show ourselves. To my mind, and in my ancestors memory,  for all they sacrificed so that we could have ownership of ourselves and this land we occupy, transforming it in the process from plantation into home, these beaches are our beaches (which visitors to our islands are welcomed to share in and enjoy). And our children must know what it is to walk them freely.

I feel like I’ve always known this, that whatever resort development projects may come and go, beach access for locals is a given; but, of course, I can only speak to my experience and my knowing. And maybe it was all a dream…?

I hope not because I would never want to give up this sense of one-ness my re-introduction to our beaches is allowing me.

 

p.s. FYI, while not set on a beach, the people’s relationship with their land being more than pocket-deep is a subject touched on in my novel Oh Gad!