If you’re a writer in a small place, it’s not unusual to meet people who wish to personally engage you about the books you’ve written. This happened twice on the day I launched With Grace. The first instance was when the girl writing up my receipt at a local boutique revealed that she had read my books in school. Not too torturous, I hope, I joked. No, she said, insisting that it was quite the opposite, especially The Boy from Willow Bend. The second instance was at the book store itself when the son of a staff member told me he’d read Musical Youth and liked it, only he wanted to know which schools the characters attended. I wouldn’t confirm either way – but he had his own theory based on the clues in the book, which was fine with me. These encounters are nice and, as I said, not all that unusual.
And it’s not some sort of bizarre celebrity encounter either, because, obviously, I’m not a celebrity; I’m the woman moving among them, usually in jeans and a t-shirt, who also happens to write books. Well, there was that instance, the same week of the book release when I returned to sign some books, when the boy from the previous encounter attempted to introduce me to his friend who he said was too nervous to talk to me. That never happens.
In fact, quite the opposite; people are usually quite chatty with me. They approach me for tips on writing and publishing (it was these kinds of questions that led me to start offering workshops, though less people are inclined or able to pay than want to pick your brain for information). People have, also, been known to come to me with story suggestions (you know who you should write a book on?). While I don’t pick my book subjects that way, the latter often has to do with some aspect of our folk history that they feel has been underreported – and the fact that I not only write books, but wrote for the local papers for a long time as well (and I would venture that I’ve gotten story leads for articles from some of these suggestions).
The occasions aren’t always convenient – once at a bar on my birthday, most recently at the bus stop en route to the supermarket on the eve of Christmas Eve. I understand that it’s a product of being a writer in a small place and accessible, and I try to roll with it – by which I mean, at least listen, even when it’s not information I can do anything with.
Sometimes you learn some interesting folk trivia.
I met two older ladies in the bus stop encounter. The first one told me about her father, Walter Bowery (not sure I have the spelling right), whom she said was the first man to make mattresses in Antigua. She remembers vividly having to come home and pick the cotton used in the stuffing. She told me this, she said, because her “father shouldn’t go down like that” (i.e. he should not be forgotten). Like most people, she wanted her – or in this case, her father’s contribution – to be acknowledged and valued. I understand this impulse (and wish we had a folk research arm of the Culture Department that actually does this, though credit to individual authors who have); as I’ve always said, with the pen we write ourselves in to existence. So little has been written about the folk and so much of what is written and shared comes from other places, it’s easy to understand that when they encounter someone who uses a pen as a her tool that they want to bend her ear to their part in this still largely unwritten story of us. Of course, I can’t tell all the stories with my single pen – maybe it’s time for a workshop on memoir writing, eh?
It’s worth noting that as writers we cannibalize some of our encounters, and my ears certainly perked up when the other lady proceeded to give me a tutorial on the old Antiguan Christmas tradition of making everything new. I’m familiar with this, to a degree, having been witness over the years to the re-painting, re-curtaining, re-tiling, re-dressing of the home that occupies most Antiguan households in the build up to Christmas – a practice it had never occurred to me was odd until a British friend asked me recently, yeah, what’s that about? I laughed and told her that maybe it was our version of their Spring cleaning, but I know it also likely connects to the tradition of calling i.e. friends and family and random others dropping in for a food or drink up during the season.
Anyway, this second lady hipped me to a part of this Christmas nicing up that I was not familiar with, the making of the bed. See, back then – as recently as the 50s by her estimation – grass beds were common (bed bugs were a literal menace in such times). Each year at Christmas you had to re-make the bed, buying new cloth and new grass to do so (I believe she said they got the grass from a Mr. Thompson and the cloth from a woman named Pinky – but don’t quote me on that). A broom would be used to shove the dried grass in to the homemade mattress and level it, before sewing it up. I found this bit of trivia interesting. This lady in particular, Ms. Samuel, told me that she routinely shares our history during the Independence celebrations; in this way, I have to think of her, too, as a storyteller in a small place.