Queen of Katwe – *spoiler alert* – I Loved It!

Weltschmerz is a German word for the sadness of the heart born of the “perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is”. I can’t swear that I’m using it in proper context but watching Phiona’s hangdog face as she returns to the extreme poverty that is her life after being feted as a chess champion in Sudan and after representing at the world Olympiad in Russia, I can’t help thinking that she is weltschmerz.

Phiona’s story explores not just the Disney-esque feel-good narrative of the ascendency of a prodigy discovered in the unlikely Ugandan slum of Katwe, one revealed to have the skill of being able to see eight moves ahead in a game of Kings and Queens, Knights and Rooks, but the tension between this ascendency and the stagnancy of her life. It’s Cinderella if after the ball, there was no Prince, no slipper, no hope of relief from your life, no one to save you but yourself. And nothing stopping you from saving yourself except first believing in yourself (it’s a long journey to this for a girl who thought the boy she played at the fancy school where she played her first outside tournament let her win). It takes self-belief, but it also takes a village. So, there is, importantly, the mentor who pushes Phiona and sacrifices his professional possibilities for this community of children of which she is a part, children who need him. And there is her mother who sacrifices, though she doesn’t quite get it, though she feels threatened by it, even though, as she points out, they can’t eat the trophies Phiona is bringing home.

Queen of Katwe is a powerful story. Not a punch in the gut so much as a cycle of laughing through tears – but go ahead, no one can see you in the darkened theatre.

The big screen film Queen of Katwe most reminds me of is Akeelah and the Bee. Gifted girl, struggling mom whose resistance is one of the main hurdles she has to overcome, troubled family life, mentor with his own problems training his prodigy for the challenge of her life, the community rooting for her and in so doing rooting for itself, the class differences between her and her competitors, the completely different world this thing she’s gifted at opens up to her (a world where she and her peers after discovering ketchup dream of a pool of ketchup, where on stepping out of the airport in Russia she tilts back her head, the expression on her face blissful, and tastes snow). That last one is, of course, where weltschmerz comes in: each time she goes away and returns to a home where realities include her brother after getting hit by a bike having to be stitched without pain medicine because there is none, that same brother having to be snuck out of the hospital before he is healed because there’s no money to pay the bill, her family finding itself evicted, and her little brother almost dying in a flash flood that runs through their squat.

Before she was shown something else – and this is true for many of us who grew up with less – Phiona didn’t know the more she was missing and she was content, even happy with her life (though aware of its deprivations, like hunger). When the neighbourhood man calls out to Phiona as she makes her way home, “how is your life”, pre-chess, she replies, “it is fine”; post-chess, post-travel, post-victory, post-disappointment, Phiona is too depressed to offer her usual response, or any response at all. And it’s not just the loss, it is the realization that this is her life and no matter what she achieves out there, that will never change. Except it can, but she has to believe it.

There are layers to this thing, because as Phiona changes, she grows away from the family she loves, the mother who loves her fiercely – and who in the end loves her enough to let her go. And, hey, it’s true, if you love something let it go, if it comes back, it is yours. Phiona does find her way back home, and she does compete again and again, and her life improves by degrees, once she makes peace with the truth that she has earned her right to be there, that when she is in the room with the best in the world she is right where she belongs.

I don’t know chess, but I picked up enough to understand that not only does Phiona see several moves ahead – quickly outgrowing what her mentor can teach her – but she plays aggressively, which, from the reactions, is unusual in a girl. When she falters is when she doubts herself, when she lets circumstances get in to her head.

It is a beautiful story, well told, with valuable lessons about dreaming big, believing in yourself, pushing through the odds, picking yourself up from disappointment, and knowing that you have a right to be where you are even if it’s not the place you’re used to. It is also a reminder that success can have you feeling weltschmerz.

Someone described Queen of Katwe, when I mentioned I was going to see it, as a gorgeous film, and I have to agree. It’s vividly shot, and because of that the poverty is hyper real but so too is the beauty, the beauty of the physical landscape and beauty and nuance of the emotional landscape.

I’m glad I got to see it.

It was uncertain because films like these don’t come here often and its box office has been weak – which is unfortunate – but I’ve got to thank Deluxe Cinemas Antigua for bringing it anyway. The only downside was the guy – and isn’t there always one – who decided that the conversation on his phone was more important than the movie we had all paid to see. But not even he could strip the joy – through tears – that was the experience of watching a girl step in to her destiny and her life and that of her family be transformed by it.

Queen of Katwe stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo and David Oyelowo, and introduces talented newcomer Madina Nalwanga.

-by Joanne C. Hillhouse who is asking Deluxe Cinemas Antigua to please also bring Loving and Hidden Figures, as well.

We could use a little Grace (New Book!)


Isn’t she pretty? She’s got a big heart too.

I am thrilled to debut my first faerie tale. Fairytales being among my and virtually every child’s introduction to literature, I am thrilled that this could be the first book many children will read. Yes, I said many; I’m speaking it in to existence. Give thanks for God, the support and encouragement of family and friends, the negative encounter that turned in to a positive story, my niece and every request when she was younger to “read it again, Auntie Joanne” (usually Rapunzel), the Cushion Club kids who while I volunteered my time reading to them helped me rediscover the unabashed delight to be found in the simple and not so simple stories of childhood, the young people in my first Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project summer camp who provided invaluable feedback when this story was still very rough, Mario Picayo for seeing right away what I was trying to do, the Desi Writers Lounge which gave this story an honourable mention in its international competition, and every Anansi story, jumbie story, and folk-parable handed down to me growing up, reminding me that though we were inundated with literature from outside, our Caribbean reality can feed our imagination too, even in the realm of magic and faeries.

#WithGrace = decency, good heartedness, courteousness = what the world needs more of.

Help me get #WithGrace in to the hand of every reader, young and young at heart, by sharing this post, buying the book, reviewing it online, and telling your circle about it. As I always say, let’s ripple the water. We need more diverse books in our world. Right? Right.

I’m adding you to that thank you list above in advance.

Launch details coming soon, but I think it’s safe to say you can put this one on your Christmas shopping list.

With Grace – Reviews

Other books by Joanne C. HIllhouse



Query Letters

I’ve only ever written query letters* for myself…until now. A recent client wanted me to not only edit her manuscript but assist with her query letter. This person had been a do-it-your-self-er in the past so she knew publishing, but knew enough to know that she needed help jumping the hoops and hurdles of traditional publishing. I’ve jumped those hoops and hurdles, and have the knee and palm scrapes to prove it.

Drafting the query letter was easy (relative to drafting my own) because I not only genuinely liked the book but could see where it could fit in the marketplace, and that’s what you want to communicate in the query letter – the story and its hook (or hook-ability).

This freelancing journey continues to give me opportunities to transfer skills learned in one area of my life to other areas. Who knew all those hours, days, weeks, months, and years of research and practice with shopping my own books would prove useful in this other side of my writing life – the one where I provide editing services to others, including other writers? As with so much else, I continue to learn as I do, and look for the opportunities.

Fingers crossed re the sale of my recent client’s book. But I’m confident that even if it doesn’t – because there are all kinds of reasons, having nothin to do with the quality of the book itself, why that could happen – and the author decides to try the self-publishing route again, I hope the process of trying to pitch and sell it will bring clarity to positioning it in the marketplace.

As for me, I’ll be adding drafting and editing query letters to the services I provide because, thanks to this job, now I do.

For more on my writing, editing, and other services, go here.ad re books and professional services

*”A query letter is a way to introduce yourself and your work to a literary agent or editor. It is a letter you send to convince agents or editors that you have a project that not only will interest them but also make them money. If they like your query, they will ask to see your work. Depending on the editor or agent, this entails seeing a book proposal from a nonfiction writer. If you’re a fiction writer, be prepared to send a full manuscript or a few chapters of your novel.” (Writers’ Digest)


I may have lost the zest for this story-maybe-book. I open the document and, a mere 96 pages in, I feel unmotivated…and I wonder…am I done?

The urgency, or something, I felt when I started this has dissipated. And I find myself questioning, why waste words and time on something I don’t feel the urgency to tell? And since I know it was once there, where did it go? Can I blame it simply on writing being crowded out?

No, because I have written five short stories in the past four weeks, four of which were submissions for this online writing course I’m taking; another piece, more flash than story, in the past week or so, was a response to a writing prompt. In the introduction to that response I spoke about writing something else when you’re stuck on the thing you’re writing.

This time though, the other writing is not flowing over in to any of my works in progress – including the one that’s the subject of this post. They all called to me at the time I started them and at times since (one I workshopped pretty enthusiastically when I was at the Callaloo writers workshop in Rhode Island but that’s been a few years now). I know well, from experience, that you don’t write only when things call to you; you sit down and do the work, period. And that’s why I make myself open at least one of these WIPs every day and sit with it even though sometimes all I’m doing is shifting stuff around. I must say lately I’m not taking them around with me – when I’m driving or riding the bus or walking – like I do when the characters are still alive in there. I hope they’re not dead.

I have a feeling a change of scenery would do the writing good. In a sense, that’s what the course – an online writing course with participants from all over the world, sitting through lectures, doing readings, participating in discussions, writing, reading and critiquing each others work – is; a virtual change of scenery. I check in every day, I do the work, and it’s one of my favorite parts of each day. It ends soon.


I tell myself I wish I had the luxury of time and money to get away for a while, with nothing but any of these WIPs to draw my attention. I fear I am just making excuses, though. None of the books I’ve written were written in such spaces – except maybe The Boy from Willow Bend which I started while at the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at University of Miami;, and, well, I remember returning invigorated from Breadloaf in Vermont and picking up Oh Gad! for what would be its final redrafting before re-submitting to one of the two agents who’d expressed interest in reading it; plus, I wrote With Grace the summer I facilitated the first Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing project and I snuck it in among the other pieces they were reading (keeping the author anonymous) just to get some honest feedback from young people – I didn’t even know it would be a book then. But really, every book – The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, Fish Outta Water, and With Grace, which is forthcoming – was written sometime between work and sleep, and having a life. cropped-books.jpg

So, I know I can write in noise and chaos and with the absence of time.

In each of those instances, meeting the page was a joy. No that’s not true, I’m doing that thing that mothers do post labor where they block out the excruciatingly painful parts of the birthing experience, because for all the times that the writing flew, there was a time with each of those manuscripts, except maybe Musical Youth, when I hit a hump, sometimes a few of them, that I had to climb over. There are unfinished stories aplenty which remind me that I don’t always get over that hump. Is this one of those times?

Too early to call.  (too soon?)

Honestly, though, I’m writing through it, but since I’m all about sharing the ups and downs of the writing life here, it’s worth sharing that sometimes the writing isn’t so much blocked as sluggish. As for how this turns out, the rest is still unwritten.

How’s your writing going?

Nope. — About that Writing thing.

Or I could call this survival in the face of White Supremacy clocking a big win. If I’ve questioned myself as an artist lately, last night and today changed my mind. I don’t know a lot of things. Including what my future holds, but I know this. I know why Trump won and I’m not […]

via Nope. — About that Writing thing.

“Bitches can’t eat love or adoration or admiration.

We gotta eat.”

Shannon is talking the social justice struggle here and I’m not here to step on her point but this made me think of recent asks I’ve had to do more for lit arts in Antigua and Barbuda on top of the time sucking but fulfilling work I already do (have done over the years) for lit arts in Antigua and Barbuda for free. It’ll guilt you, too, because you want to be of service; but like Shannon said, you have to eat.

So I will piggyback her a little bit to say, if you’re asking. think about it, and think if you can’t find a little room in your budget for a consult fee even if just enough to cover time and gas fare. Because that’s reality for artistes out here struggling, at a time when their energies are sapped.

On the point of President Cheeto, I have no words; I have not even been able to write the no words I don’t have. I felt gutted as I can’t remember feeling after any election – even elections here in my home country. Not just because I am keenly aware of how America’s choices ripple through our worlds: issues like climate change (we need to save the planet as a matter of our survival but President Cheeto is on record dismissing climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese), international security (think how much our lives – travel to safety at home – have changed since America invaded Iraq the last time a liberal won the popular vote but lost the election via electoral college to a conservative), and the global economy (because our small and weakened economies are still feeling the impact of that last big recession caused by forces beyond our control with American greed and lack of regulation of said greed at the centre). But also because the man who won the election over an infinitely more qualified and capable and potentially glass ceiling breaking alternative has overtly (subtlety is not in his playbook) attacked the Other at every turn. And it’s profoundly disturbing when 10s of millions of people, fully half the country that fancies itself not only a global but a moral leader, sign off on this xenophobia, racism, sexism, anti-semitism, anti-intellectualism, anti-free-press-ism, anti-respectful discourse (and I am aware that there is some irony in me pointing that last one out while still calling him President Cheeto but I’m still struggling to accept this, because…seriously, America?) Anyway, if I, so far away, can feel so at first numb then enraged, I can’t imagine what those who look like me (black, female) and others Other-ed upclose must be feeling. With the Department of Justice now to be run by an attorney general appointed by President Cheeto, one likely unsympathetic to those at the margins, what will become of Black Lives Matter, of the black lives lost to gun violence (including violence at the hands of the police) and to the activist group branded hateful for speaking for Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and others – I may be here and they there but as part of this story which began with us being ripped from our home continent, their story is mine and my story is theirs and Black lives matter to me (don’t come at me with all lives matter because, of course they do, but a movement, any movement, is born of a failure to acknowledge the inclusion of the marginalized in that All).

I’ve seen a lot of tone policing and dismissiveness with respect to the anger those in the margins (particularly those who have been targets of President Cheeto’s vitriol – Muslims, Immigrants, People of Colour, Women, and others) on social media today even from those who consider themselves allies but won’t cop to what this endorsement of his hate speech reflects. People are hurting and they’ve got to be given time to feel that hurt (don’t come at them with not all white women when the majority of white women across all demographics voted race over gender, hate over unity), and so I co-sign what Shannon’s saying on that level too (what she’s said over time about life in the margins).

I have to believe the world will right itself. It occurred to me as I came out of my numbness today that this is what we do, we, people, we take the blow and we either let it knock us down and sit there or we get up and keep life-ing. And I thought of the blows that have rocked my world including the deaths of close family and friends, rejections and disappointments, health scares, and this, a reminder that people will not necessarily essentially do the right thing. And as a descendant of people once enslaved for generations by good people complicit in doing a human wrong, I don’t know why I should need a reminder of that but I suppose it also means that somewhere in there I still have optimism and hope for human nature. More fool me. But the fact that I’ve come out of numbness to feel even these negative feelings, gives me hope that I can push through to a more positive place. I am reminded that this is what we do, we, people, we get up and we keep life-ing, and hopefully every fear we have, based on the ugly tenor of his words and actions to date, will be proven wrong; I would love to be proven wrong. Prove me wrong, President Cheeto.

Hm, I guess I had more words than I realized.