In advance of the Commonwealth Writers event The Untold Story: By Our Own Tongues on Friday 11 April, Joanne C Hillhouse talks to the British Council Literature Team about Antigua, inspirations and languages.
(This interview seems to have been removed from the British Council website but is still on Repeating Islands – a reminder of the value of having our own spaces – and is uploaded here FYI; and FYI the image below is from 2014, the Untold Story event at the Aye Write! festival in Scotland, referenced in the intro)
Why did you become a writer, and what inspires you?
It’s not so much a why did I become as a how could I not… I’ve always been the girl with her head in a book and, when not in a book, whose vision turned inward to the stories in her head…soaking up the world around her, processing everything that happens to her through the ‘pen’…I don’t feel like I had a choice about being a writer and I don’t feel like I’d want to be anything else …not when I have this freedom on the page to interpret and imagine my world.
When I think about when I started writing in earnest, in my teens, I realize that what inspired me then was trying to make sense of my world, trying to cope with the confusion of becoming…what’s inspired me since is everything …everything I can’t shake …an emotion or a question or a notion…and I write through it…I often describe writing as journeying, discovering…because for me it is a sort of adventure, every time, into territory at once familiar and unknown…like driving down a path…it’s bumpy and narrow and there are trees and grass, things familiar like that…but there’s a bend at the end of the path and you don’t know what’s around the bend, and you’re curious… and you’re both scared and excited…do you turn back or do you keep going…if I keep going I get a story out of it…but that uncertainty is the driver.
Everything I write is rooted in being a child of Ottos, Antigua…yet so much of what I write these days, and I just picked up on this, is about how much it’s all changing, and trying to figure out what those changes mean. So, there’s that uncertainty again.
Your story Amelia at Devil’s Bridge was featured in the new anthology Pepperpot: Best New Stories From the Caribbean. You write in your blog that you hope that the modern Caribbean reader will have access to this anthology. How important is it to you that your writing reaches a global audience?
Okay, here’s the thing, I never approach any story or poem thinking about the audience, local or global; during the writing process, I just want to honour the characters and their story – I want to hear their voices without interference from the outside.
But, of course, I’m also a working writer and on the back end of the process I hope what I write finds an audience.
Growing up in Antigua, so much of what I had access to as a kid from Ottos came from other places; and as a reader and writer, I feel there’s a lot happening in contemporary Caribbean fiction that your average Caribbean person, before we even get to the world reader, is not aware of. Books from other places are the popular fiction even in our spaces. The writing in Pepperpot is really good, and it’s really modern, fresh and sometimes startling; it would be a shame if readers didn’t know it existed or had difficulty sourcing it as they so often do with Caribbean books. So that’s what I meant by that, I think.
As for the global audience, what writer doesn’t want that? But to return to the original part of my answer, it’s not what’s on my mind when I’m writing, but I grew up reading enough fiction from other places to know that if the story is true, if the characters are real, and the plot moves in interesting ways, the unfamiliarity of the world is incidental; I believe in writing my world, authentically, and hope that people from other places will come into that world and visit – on the page.
You write in English but dialogues are often written in Caribbean creole. How important is this for your work?
I write it as I hear it. In fact, one of the pieces I’ve been working on on and off has a very non-standard narrative voice. That will probably make it unpublishable …but like I said I don’t think about that too much when I’m writing as I don’t want to be restricted.
Thankfully, so far I haven’t been.
I think the dialogue in most of my work as written is important if I want the reader to hear it, to truly hear the character’s voice. The acceptance and the use of our mother tongue is still a struggle in the Caribbean where we’ve been colonized into this idea where it’s nothing more than bad English. Thankfully that way of thinking is changing, albeit slowly…but for me it’s never been a case of bad English, not when you’re talking about a language with a vocabulary and rules and history all its own, born out of a fusion of cultures, like so much else that makes us Caribbean.
I love when a non Caribbean reader hears it so well they forget they don’t know it and when a Caribbean reader hears it and it feels like home to them. Two reader reviews come to mind – this from a non Caribbean reader: “Even though the dialect wasn’t something I was used to at the end of the book I felt that I could go to Antigua and carry on a conversation with the best of them.” – and this from a Caribbean reader: “This book took me back home to Antigua and was very real to me. I enjoyed the use of language as the author placed her characters. In many ways the choice to use the island’s language is a statement about claiming one’s own identity.”
More than that though, it matters to me to get the characters’ voices right, since so much of what I write is from character.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that writers face today?
The challenges are as they’ve always been: time, money, space, more time, access, opportunity; though perhaps a little more so if you’re a black woman writer from a small island in the Caribbean sea…the biggest challenge then, in the face of insurmountable odds – including a rapidly transforming publishing landscape – is not losing hope, holding on to that thing some might call persistence and others might call obstinacy.