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?

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