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!

Teaching the Teachers

 The one time I wish I had a cell phone…

And not a regular old cell phone either. One with video function. That’s any old cell phone, you say. Okay, then; I guess any old cell phone will do.

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And all I’ve got is this stupid web cam.

What was I itching to capture? A group of teachers doing the cha cha electric slide during one of my sessions at the Ministry of Education’s Summer Institute, acting out part of a chapter from my book Musical Youth. And, as one teacher pointed out, no two group presentations were alike or drawn from the same bit of prose in spite of having the same part of a chapter to interpret. One of the groups had one teacher, playing a girl (Nicola?) in the rehearsal, demonstrating the shoulder shrug-neck snap-chest pump–hip sway-hop to a teacher acting as a rhythm-less Zahara stand-in. It was one of those rare moments where as a writer you get to see something you envisioned come to life and where as a workshop facilitator you get to see participants shake off their inhibitions and embrace an activity. True confessions: I would be an absolute fail at attempting the dance I wrote about in Musical Youth but the Nicola-teacher she made each moment sway in to the other like the child of Africa that she is and by the time she was done with the other teacher she kind of had it too. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and one of many moments of unlocking imagination and making literature come alive during my three days facilitating this workshop for a sometimes revolving door of teachers. I had 25 registered, I believe, but ran out of my 25 handouts more than once. Which is a good problem to have.

Over the three days, we studied the anatomy of story. They wrote and shared their own creations guided by prompts.

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Group story presentation. Photos by (teacher) Tiffany Azille-Henry.

They created pieces in response to their favourite works of art – after insisting that they had no favourite work of art – discovering, in the process, that art (and inspiration) is all around us. Without leaving the room, we moved from Malawi to Jamaica to New York and spent quite a bit of time in Antigua, we visited with Anansi and snake and turtle, we explored how story can be used to open up conversations with young people about the social and cultural issues of our times, about the realities of their lives; about the opportunity to interpret, and the freedom to re-write and to provide alternate endings. We looked for stories in other places – like songs, and we sang. One of my favourite segments came when after listening to, watching videos of, singing along with, dancing to, and discussing songs in which artistes interpreted their world, after they groaned when I asked them to group up and do the same (it was the end of a long day and we were all tired), they came up with some of the BEST writing they’d done so far. That was at the end of day two – they wrote about growing up in Antigua, they had us chorusing their plight in calypso, they gave us humour and nostalgia, they wrote about being teachers (the kind of testimonial that, though quiet in tone, made the church say Amen). We had fun that afternoon, and I’ll never forget that one teacher who, as she finished up the journaling they had to do at the end of each day (and at least twice a day), asked me if I’d ever been a teacher and told me I had very good teaching strategies. This in spite of their jokes about my handwriting (it’s bad), in spite of the fact that sometimes when they got going discussing the topics I laid out, it was all I could do to get a word in edgewise (you’d think teachers would grasp the concept of raise your hand and one person at a time, right?). For so many reasons none of which have any thing to do with the Summer Institute and none of which I will get in to here, little as she knows, this teacher’s acknowledgment and affirmation (and those that would come at the end of my final day with the group, what they said outright and what they wrote in their evaluations) was a validating, heart-filling, joyful moment for me.

It wasn’t all fun and games (though we did play games and we did have fun) – setting up the sessions was a mini-lecture on the necessity of creativity (and the value of creative writing) in the classroom – and the exercises were all meant to spur discussion or model approaches to encouraging creativity in the classroom, stressing the importance of being innovative and looking for opportunities. We watched and discussed a TED Talk which spoke to kids being educated out of their creativity, the way the system is set up – a talk the teachers related to as our post-viewing discussion revealed. They expressed an openness to the idea of finding creative ways to respond to (interpret, express, respond to) the literature they and their children interact with and creative approaches to educating, period. Which is the goal really.

Art used in this workshop included but was not limited to excerpts from my own Musical Youth (as mentioned) and The Boy from Willow Bend, Anansi including but again not limited to Barbara Arrindell’s How Snake Stories were Renamed Anansi Stories as published in Womanspeak: a Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women (with, note to Barbara, one of the teachers asking me about its availability online), a story from the Commonwealth River of Stories, Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird, Wadadli Pen past winning stories – one by a teacher Margaret Irish’s The Skipping Rope, one by a secondary school student Liscia Lawrence’s The Day I saw Evil (I like how impressed they were with the level of the writing, considering the author’s age at the time), and college student (at the time) Gemma George’s Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm (which both amused and spurred spirited discussion which was good because with each of these stories we looked at how story could drive discussion on social issues and give students an opportunity to explore how they feel about them). We also engaged with several songs and short vids which I tried to keep all regional if not local; all culturally relevant and possessing storytelling features and elements that we could use.

I also distributed copies of some of the books I had on hand (as a prize to the winning team after one of our word/story games – they called themselves appropriately and perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Champions). These included the last of my author comp copies of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Musical Youth, The Boy from Willow Bend, and other books like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Of Noble Family, Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, and Colleen Smith-Dennis’ Inner City Girl. There was also a memoir by the actress who plays or played Drucilla on Young  and the Restless. Those all went.

It was heartening that they were particularly keen to have books by local authors – and, when I shared the book lists/bibliographies on the Wadadli Pen website, surprised by the sheer number of local books which they could potentially use in the classroom of which they had not been aware.I gave them a resources list at the end and encouraged them, with all of the hardware and internet access we’re supposed to have now, to utilize online resources as well.

I think you can tell that this was fun, productive and effective. Or so they said in their blind evaluations (excerpted below):

“I gained a wealth of knowledge about different books and ways I go about teaching my class how to write a story.”

“I wanted to learn new tips in assisting my students. I did.”

“I enjoyed writing poems and working actively in groups. Awesome experience.”

“My favourite part was interacting in my group. I have learned a lot.”

“Usually I am a shy person. Through teachers’ interaction I was able to read what I would have written.”

“A wonderfully informative and interactive presentation.”

“It was a learning experience and it was well done.”

“Great delivery overall. Inspired.”

“I recommend that all teachers at the infant level be involved in these activities.”

“Good how she managed to cater to all our needs – the primary school and secondary school.”

“There is a lot to be gained.”

Most important to me was what they gained and how they see themselves applying it in the classroom. The gains, as listed by them, included “Various ways to encourage children to write…A deeper appreciation for literacy…To encourage creativity in our students and examples of the different ways… Many different fun ways to include and foster literacy…Storytelling using music and movies…How to engage my students in creative writing successfully…Different activities that can be used in the classroom… A variety of strategies that can be used to encourage reading and writing… I think most of all it would be the prompts used. I can do this with my Grade 4…To help students to develop creative minds. Don’t shut them down.”

I also asked them to share their favourite bits because what they enjoyed doing can tip me as to what works but can also prompt them as to what might work in their classroom. Their responses: “engaging in activities verbally, role play, interpreting written words…Singing and dancing; full participation….writing poems and working actively in groups…All the practical exercises … Playing games; writing stories, poems….Writing my story/poem and sharing with the group…The excitement generated by the activities; the high level of student participation… Song/life stories etc. Participation/games, reading etc.” And my favourite:  “All activities done were both interesting and exciting. Hard to choose just one.”

Real talk, I was nervous going in to this because while I’ve been doing workshops for a while, I hadn’t had to build a course quite like this, with this purpose, and I’d certainly never tried to teach teachers. There wasn’t a lot of prep time by the time I was approved as a presenter. Plus I’ve learned between my time in the classroom and my time creating and running workshops that I work better in interactive small group settings – 25 plus teachers in a classroom setting was a tad intimidating but I stepped into that classroom and made it in to the space I needed it to be to create that interactive workshop vibe, and was lucky to have a group of teachers who (though they were skeptical of some of what I asked them to do) did it (mostly), and that give and take made for an organic and fulfilling experience for us both. I was tired but smiling at the end of my first day but looking forward to each other day. Making it, hands down, one of my favourite professional experiences to date. One I look forward to doing again with similar groups in Antigua and Barbuda and elsewhere.

I love to write, but I keep re-discovering that I also love to find creative ways to get others if not writing then thinking creatively as well. And when you’re doing what you love, it’s not work.

Reviews – Musical Youth

The latest goodreads reader review declares Musical Youth “one the best coming of age books I have come across”. I appreciate the enthusiasm.  I’m really not worthy…but I am glad that readers continue to discover and delight in the adventures of this group of musical theatre loving teens whose involvement in a summer production changes all their lives.

You can see if you agree by purchasing your own copy all summer long in CaribbeanReads’ sale… follow the link and stock up…also check out the guides for Musical Youth and the Caribbean Adventure Series.

Musical Youth Publisher: Caribbean Reads Publishing (St. Kitts’s-Nevis/USA) Genre: Young Adult Fiction (novel) Year of Release: 2014 ISBN-10: 0989930513/ISBN-13: 978-0989930512 First Page #12…

Source: Reviews – Musical Youth

Natalie Cole: the Tribute that might have been

I wrote this shortly after the Grammys where Lady Gaga monopolized (my word) the David Bowie tribute and the Grammy gods deemed Natalie Cole not worthy of a live tribute. After that we lost another great one in the person of Prince and the  tribute at the Billboard awards still has me scratching my head because…Madonna?…singing Nothing Compares to You?… Now, I don’t imagine it’s easy to plan these tributes especially if there’s little time to prepare so while I give BET props for getting it mostly right (shout out to Sheila E. and Janelle Monae), I accept that they did have a little bit more prep time. Tip of the hat for some damn good tributes at the VH1 Honors Ladies of Hip Hop show, btw.

But this isn’t about Prince or Bowie or the Ladies of Hip Hop…like I said, it was written right after the Grammys and was sort of a fantasy piece about the tribute that might have been …for Natalie Cole.

This will be!

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

I’m one of the people who tuned in to the Grammys expecting a Natalie Cole tribute. I even knew which song I wanted them to do. I know Unforgettable is a classic going all the way back to her daddy, Nat, and that her performance of it with him on record and live was a seminal moment in song.

But, my choice was This will be! – exclamation point mine, because doesn’t it sound like it deserves one? You know the bubbly “loving and kissing and squeezing…through rain and whatever” song? Yeah, as I said in a recent post on my facebook page, I love the pep of that song.

Yes, pep, which I define as the bounce, the soul, the energy, and the effervescence of it. I also like the harmonizing that happens as the song starts feeling itself.

I didn’t discover Natalie until my coming of age and coming in to my own musical tastes in the 1980s. She was then experiencing what I now know was a career revival with songs like Miss you like Crazy.

It was a revival that would be cemented a few years on with the aforementioned collaboration with her late father – a triumphant embrace of the legacy the literature (and a TV movie about her life) tells me she shied away from early in her career as she tried to find and establish her own voice.

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect that Natalie would have rated more than a spot in the In Memoriam tribute on a show that included a live Gwen Stefani video and a tad too much Gaga in the David Bowie tribute. Yes, it bears repeating. For the record my favourite tribute of the night was the B. B. King tribute which I thought was about the artist and the not the artistes celebrating him. Plus it was great to see Bonnie ‘Let’s give em something to talk about’ Raitt again.

But, yes, not unreasonable to expect to see some of today’s R ‘n B songstresses dancing and harmonizing on This will be! Considering that Natalie has nine Grammy wins (when they weren’t giving multiple awards to so-so artistes like participation trophies…you know who I’m talking about) – beginning with Best New Artist and Best R n B vocal performance for, you guessed it, This will be!

So, I asked on my facebook page, who would have been ideal participants in that tribute? I pictured three women as in her 1975 Midnight Special performance (a recent youtube find) and for a minute contemplated a Destiny’s Child re-reunion for the occasion. But then I thought how much more fun it would be to put a line-up of solo songstresses together. They would have to have exemplary singing chops and the requisite soulfulness but not be too showy – not saying they can’t vamp but harmonizing after all requires an ability to blend your voice in with the whole.

My picks, therefore, are Jazmin Sullivan, Chrisete Michele, Janelle Monae with Erykah Badu not only lending vocals but spinning records. I think that would have been hype. Chrisete’s voice is delicate yet strong and soulful – it has a fine, distinctive quality to it. Speaking of distinctive but similarly underrated vocalist Jazmin’s voice has a little more body and sultriness; I feel the blend of the two would have hit a musical sweet spot. Plus it would have given both R n B vocalists a well-earned larger stage. Janelle and Erykah don’t need the extra spotlight maybe but you have to admit that they bring a certain energy and eccentricity to every stage – and both give good voice.

There are other obvious choices, of course. Someone on my page mentioned Fantasia and as I’m typing this, Jill Scott is also on the edge of my mind. But I’m digging my original quartet.

What about you, who would have been your picks for the Natalie Cole Grammy musical tribute that should have been?

You don’t have to answer that (obviously the posting of this is many months delayed in a fast moving world; I just wanted to post it anyway though late rather than never). But you can answer if you wish. In any case, hope you enjoyed the music.

Venus and Serena: a Tribute

I felt like re-sharing this (poem) in light of Serena Williams’ 7th Wimbledon win this July (2016). Serena WilliamsSerena and Venus continue to inspire, the sisters teaming up, the first time in four years to claim the Wimbledon doubles title as well. This poem was written in 2005 on the occasion of a Venus win, her first win as I recall in some time. I am always rooting for Venus, though I love and share this in celebration of them both. It was originally published in 2009 in Mythium: the Journal of Contemporary Literature, a southern African American literary journal edited by Crystal Wilkinson (I remember I discovered her on MySpace where I used to do her online workshops and then when she announced a journal, though I wasn’t a southern African American woman, I submitted). The poem is also now among the previously published poems and stories which can be found in my book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings. It’s an opportunity to discover or re-discover, as the case may be, the original novella (Dancing Nude in the Moonlight) and writings of mine published in various regional and international literary journals and anthologies.

Like this one:

Venus Ascending
(On seeing Venus Williams’ 2005 victory at Wimbledon)

by jhohadli

I will borrow the Phoenix’s lore,
as, from burnt out dreams,
Venus ascends once more.
In sedate English climes,
the rose that sprouted through cracked Compton courts
bloomed anew,
defying premature eulogies masked as reports –
which once credited
her “Raw” talent, her power, her newness;
were less enthralled by
her flash, her verve, her defiant otherness:
Playing her game.
Snubbing ‘The Game’.
Rewriting the headlines.
Vanquishing foes to the sidelines.

Game. Set. Match.

The second chapter belonged to the sister act.
Like Pitons besting millennia of hurricanes,
they honoured the family pact.
Glamm’d and beaded, they bedazzled;
Re-made the game,
inspired ‘Venus Envy’, coined “Serena slams”.
Centre court would never be the same.
Starlets blinked quietly
into obscurity,
and yet the sky was lit like a Caribbean night;
It’s beauty legendary.
Zena Ashe Gibson
had passed the baton.
A new morning beckoned;
one sister leading, the other second.

But heroines are tested
by life’s unrelenting tempests.
In hovels and mansions,
this is true, wherever one rests.
And stepping unto the green,
one icon stumbled and fell.
The other defied baffled pundits,
drawing deep from the well
they thought long dry.
It was epic really –
not the breezy wins,
but the one eked from adversity.
For it is in this time
that the cliché’d champion-heart proved sublime.
And danced, at battle’s end,
giddily;
The Venus’ ascent
a daunting portent.

 

 

 

Interviews, Guest Blogs, and Articles

July 2016 – Naomi Jackson, an American author with Caribbean roots (in Barbados and Antigua) is the author of the critically-acclaimed Star Side of Bird Hill. She made picks of her own for the American Scholar, a list of 10 books about exile and displacement that included Grace Jones’ Ill Never Write My Memoirs, Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award Winning The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian, A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei, Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Man Booker Winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Anna-in-Between by Elizabeth Nunez, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and two Antiguan picks – Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (which you’ll also find on my 2016 summer reading list) and my book Oh Gad! Read the reasons behind her picks.

Source: Interviews, Guest Blogs, and Articles

Just a short note…

That the second cycle, level 2, of my Writing is Your Business course has ended – I’m actually now on to a workshop on the literary arts with teachers participating in a professional development Summer Institute (but more on that in a later blog post).

In the last session of my WYB, a course I offer under the banner of Barbara Arrindell and Associates, my student (yes, only one student this time making for an intensive coaching-style, one-on-one, flexible, adaptive sort of experience) had to present her final project. Over four weeks, I’d been laying the foundation through instruction and practice for her to take on the challenge of presenting three different types of writing, three different audiences, three different platforms, three different purposes, but the same message – and, yes, directly connected to her professional life. You may remember I said she was the holdover from the first level of my course who wanted to do the course though she had little use for writing in her work and her daily life, simply because she wanted to get better.  I think of her as an example of the preparation part of that model of luck in which it is the sum of preparation meeting opportunity. I believe she will have opportunity to put what she’s learned to practice. And practice is what I have reminded her she needs to keep doing. Her presentation in our final session proves that she is an amazingly adept student – responsive to instruction and able to apply what she’s learned. I guided her through ways to improve her written submissions but I must say that she did remarkably well for a starter.

In her evaluation of the course she wrote that she came “to learn to write emails or just to learn how to write better (business letters, emails, etc.)” and she affirmed that her goals had been accomplished and that she would recommend the course to others intent on learning to write better. “The Course was very informative,” she said.

Final  verdict: clearly the numbers could have been better, especially considering that level one was almost fully subscribed; but in terms of the work we put in, I’m happy with the result and hope to offer more of these courses in the future.

Though maybe another creative writing course or workshop first; it’s been a while since I did one of those. What do you say? As the market demands…

I continue to build.