On Friday 21st October, 2016, I participated in an Independence literary arts activity (for off-islanders November 1st is Antigua and Barbuda’s 35th anniversary of Independence, yes we’re that young, and there are a number of activities in the build-up to that date. Typically, literary arts is the left out stepchild, at least since the lit arts comp was shelved after a seven year run, but this year we got a little corner of a leaf on the programme). It was a last minute add to my schedule…very last minute.
But I must say I did enjoy the time spent with my panel and the roomful of young people at the Multipurpose Centre. The panel included Gordon George, one of my English teachers during my time as a student at the Antigua State College; Natasha Lightfoot, Columbia University professor and author of Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation; and Joy Lawrence, poet and folk historian – author of village histories like The History of Bethesda and Christian Hill. The young people in the audience, meanwhile, were drawn from several secondary schools and the Antigua State College.
I was especially impressed with the way Natasha, the last speaker, was able to engage a, by then, roomful of restless – and hungry – teenagers, a group younger than the group she typically engages with, in a discussion that linked their dreams as young people on the cusp of their own future with the dreams of the formerly enslaved Antiguans and Barbudans who walked in to freedom in 1834. Mr. George, meanwhile, introduced them to the work of Eileen Hall Luke who published (the Fountain and the Bough) in the 1930s. The poem he shared was called ‘Obeah Woman’ which was written in Caribbean creole and drew on Caribbean references (the titular obeah woman) in its depiction of the breakdown of a relationship due to faithlessness or maybe its endurance in spite of faithlessness …because a woman scorned becomes an obeah woman prepared to do whatever she has to to keep what is hers. There are different interpretations and that was Mr. George’s point, I believe, as he guided them to use the clues in the work to interpret it for themselves.
Interestingly, it was the boys especially who engaged, not just with this exercise, but in general – something Dr. Lightfoot took note of as she voiced the wish to hear from more of the girls during her Q & A with the students. Oh, yes, the students had the opportunity to ask questions after each presentation. Joy Lawrence’s might have been the most spirited as she pushed back at some of the students questions – why Bethesda…why not Bethesda; where is Bethesda… she refused to even engage with that one, and gave point blank answers to some others – are there enough Antiguan and Barbudan books on the CSEC syllabus…no. She spoke of her early love for writing, her entry in to writing publicly after Hurricane Luis in 1995, the sense of duty she felt to do the work that she was doing in terms of our folk history – “to go forward is to look back”.
I was the first speaker, after Festivals Minister Chet Greene. Event MC and organizer Maurice Merchant had connected with me only days before the event and my participation was confirmed pretty much the morning of, so I really had no concrete idea of what to expect. But it went surprisingly well. I say surprisingly because even as I stepped to the mic, I had no idea what I was going to read or share…about publishing, which was what I was technically asked to speak on. I decided to share my publishing journey beginning with why I write via my poem Ah Write! which has been published in the Caribbean Writer and the PEN online and print journal, and is now available in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight: 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings.
I talked about the road to publication with the other books, and shared a bit of the most recently published one – and the one that seemed most likely to engage this group of teenagers – Musical Youth. Not surprisingly, one of the first questions was of the so what happens next variety. But there were a fair amount of publishing related questions – how does one go about getting published to how much do I make (note, not how much do writers make or how do writers make their money…I took the latter approach in answering the question, by the way, discussing advances and royalties and prize monies and touching on how I monetize my skills). There were questions some related to things more personally literary as well – favourite genre to book I’m proudest of (and really how does one choose?). There were process questions – where do I find inspiration to whether or not some of my writing being in the local vernacular has been a hindrance to publication in the wider market (knock on wood, not so far). Merchant had arranged purchase of books by participating authors (specifically Lightfoot’s Troubling Freedom and my The Boy from Willow Bend and the original edition of Dancing Nude – yep, there are still a few of those floating around) and distribution of said books to libraries of participating schools. An unusual/unexpected and commendable gesture – supporting the work of local authors while giving young Antiguans and Barbudans access to their writings.
After the formalities, there was some informal interaction, and it’s always a pleasure to have these engagements with young people and to see their enthusiasm whether for a book of yours that touched them in some way (The Boy from Willow Bend in the case of the young girl from Ottos Comprehensive School who asked me about writers’ block) or their own projects (the boy whose SBA is about the linkages between Africa and Antigua and needed some tips on getting started with the writing now that he’s gathered all this research); but mostly – perhaps because we have this idea that they are sooo over it, sometimes – their enthusiasm for life. I continue to wish them well in the embrace of their dreams – and had a we’ve come a long way, baby moment when in voicing said dreams, there was one accountant-athlete who spoke up and not a doctor or lawyer among them…not a knock against doctors or lawyers, or accountants, but there was a time when it seemed that these were the only professions our young people thought or had been told were worthwhile. It’s nice to see them thinking outside the box.
p.s. I’ll share more/better pictures if and when I get them.